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09/21/2005

Missing Rodents

Last week’s column ended on a somber note on the possibility
that the chimpanzee and other great apes were in danger of
becoming extinct. It may have been in the September National
Geographic devoted to Africa that I read that the reason so many
exotic animals survived in Africa is that they have evolved
together with humans, whom they learned to fear and avoid. In
contrast, animals in North and South America had no contact
with humans. When humans did arrive on the scene relatively
recently, the animals were sitting ducks and many were hunted to
extinction or near extinction. Now, humans in Africa have
increased in numbers that threaten the existence of our closest
relatives.

How to solve this problem? Tom Clancy’s novel “Rainbow Six”
has a chilling solution. A group of environmental extremists
decide to give the earth back to the animals by killing all the
human beings on our planet, except for a select, small number of
people that includes themselves. Their plan is to spread a new
and deadly form of Ebola virus for which they have developed
the only vaccine, ensuring their survival. Clancy, as usual,
weaves a complicated web of horror and intrigue. His fictitious
bioterror scenario may be extreme but, living in an area deeply
affected by 9/11 and in the state from which were mailed
anthrax-laced letters following 9/11, Clancy’s novel does grab
one’s attention.

The very day I finished the novel, the September 15 Star-
Ledger’s headline was “Lab loses track of three mice that had
plague”! I thought, “Hey, it might not take bad guys to do us in,
just carelessness.” The mice are missing from a bioterror
research lab dedicated to finding new vaccines for the plague,
considered one of the possible agents that might be used by
terrorists. The lab, run by the Public Health Research Institute, is
located on the Newark campus of UMDNJ, University of
Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. (I’m an adjunct associate
professor at another UMDNJ campus.)

The Ledger article, by Josh Margolin and Ted Sherman, says the
FBI has a number of agents on the case and has said that it is as
satisfied as it can be that the public safety is not at risk. The
New Jersey State Health Commissioner said that mice with the
plague die “very fast” and that the “risk to the public … is slim
to none.” I’m assuming they’re correct but, living fairly close to
Newark, I’ll give any mice I see a wide berth. Actually, I should
also be concerned about fleas. The article mentioned the case a
number of years ago of a New Yorker who contracted bubonic
plague, probably from infected fleas, while visiting New Mexico.
That poor fellow ended up having his legs amputated.

The details of the experiment involving the lost mice are rather
bizarre. The experimenters started out with three sets of 8 mice
in three separate cages. All three sets of mice were inoculated
with a bacterium that causes bubonic and other types of plague.
The 8 mice in one cage were given no vaccine, the 8 mice in the
second cage were given a vaccine known to be effective against
the plague and the 8 mice in the third cage were given a vaccine
being tested. This latter test vaccine was obviously not very
effective since, only three days later, all the mice in that cage
were dead, as were all the mice in the group that received no
vaccine. On the other hand, all the mice in the third cage were
still alive. The dead mice were bagged and placed in a freezer.

Four days later, someone looked in the last cage and only found
7 mice! I’m assuming they were alive, although this was not
mentioned in The Ledger article. The workers then retrieved the
bagged bodies from the freezer and found only 7 mice in each
bag! Unbelievable! I was relieved to read that the animal
handler responsible for not noticing the discrepancies is not
working in the facility at this time. The current thinking or hope
is that their fellow cage mates ate the three missing mice.
Unfortunately, the handler cleaned up and incinerated the
contents of the cages without checking for any mouse remains.

No wonder the FBI was called in. It seems unlikely that each of
the three groups of mice would decide to eat just one of their
fellow inmates. It also seems to me unlikely that, if the mice
escaped, only one from each cage would find its way out. Given
the sloppy handling of the experiment, could it be that whoever
assembled the groups in the first place just didn’t count out 8
mice correctly three different times? Or did someone
deliberately let the mice out of the cages or take them with him
or her? It’s hard to conceive why anyone would do that with all
three sets of mice, or even any of the mice. I should think that a
terrorist would find access to better sources of plague material.

On reflection, there may be a somewhat feasible scenario for the
eating of just one mouse per cage. If the mice tend to eat dead
fellow mice, then it’s possible that the first mouse to die would
get eaten and that, in the two cages where all were found dead,
the rest of the mice either died shortly thereafter or became too
weak to eat before dying. In the third cage, perhaps one mouse
died and the others, in which the vaccine was effective, stayed
healthy and not prone to be eaten. That’s the best scenario I can
come up with for three eaten mice.

The term “bubonic” derives from the prime symptom of the
plague, swollen lymph glands known as “bubos”. According to
my 1962 World Book Encyclopedia, the bubos are most likely to
appear in the groin, armpits and neck. Fever, chills, headache,
body pains and extreme exhaustion are among the other
symptoms. Today, prompt treatment with antibiotics will stop
the disease. This was not the case back in the 1600s, when over
150,000 people died in London alone. In India, over ten million
people died from the plague in 20 years around the beginning of
the 20th century.

Aside from villains deliberately trying to do us in or accidents in
a bioterror lab inadvertently spreading a killer disease, Nature
continues developing its own forms of bioterror. Of most current
concern is the possibility of a pandemic resulting from the spread
of bird flu from Asia around the world. This possible pandemic
has been the subjects of a flood of articles in the media and in
scientific journals. The so-called H5N1 virus is the bad guy, or
at least the one that has garnered the most attention. H5N1 has
either killed or been responsible for the deliberate slaughtering of
tens of millions of chickens. How many other birds and animals
it has killed is unknown, but at least 50 people have succumbed
to H5N1. So far, it seems that the humans have been infected
through contact with infected poultry or other birds but there is
the possibility that H5N1 has evolved or will evolve to be
transmitted from human to human and that’s when we’re all in
trouble.

All this sounds pretty scary. Let’s hope our researchers have the
vaccine or other remedy in hand if H5N1 does decide to jump
from human to human. Those missing mice don’t seem nearly as
frightening now.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-09/21/2005-      
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Dr. Bortrum

09/21/2005

Missing Rodents

Last week’s column ended on a somber note on the possibility
that the chimpanzee and other great apes were in danger of
becoming extinct. It may have been in the September National
Geographic devoted to Africa that I read that the reason so many
exotic animals survived in Africa is that they have evolved
together with humans, whom they learned to fear and avoid. In
contrast, animals in North and South America had no contact
with humans. When humans did arrive on the scene relatively
recently, the animals were sitting ducks and many were hunted to
extinction or near extinction. Now, humans in Africa have
increased in numbers that threaten the existence of our closest
relatives.

How to solve this problem? Tom Clancy’s novel “Rainbow Six”
has a chilling solution. A group of environmental extremists
decide to give the earth back to the animals by killing all the
human beings on our planet, except for a select, small number of
people that includes themselves. Their plan is to spread a new
and deadly form of Ebola virus for which they have developed
the only vaccine, ensuring their survival. Clancy, as usual,
weaves a complicated web of horror and intrigue. His fictitious
bioterror scenario may be extreme but, living in an area deeply
affected by 9/11 and in the state from which were mailed
anthrax-laced letters following 9/11, Clancy’s novel does grab
one’s attention.

The very day I finished the novel, the September 15 Star-
Ledger’s headline was “Lab loses track of three mice that had
plague”! I thought, “Hey, it might not take bad guys to do us in,
just carelessness.” The mice are missing from a bioterror
research lab dedicated to finding new vaccines for the plague,
considered one of the possible agents that might be used by
terrorists. The lab, run by the Public Health Research Institute, is
located on the Newark campus of UMDNJ, University of
Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. (I’m an adjunct associate
professor at another UMDNJ campus.)

The Ledger article, by Josh Margolin and Ted Sherman, says the
FBI has a number of agents on the case and has said that it is as
satisfied as it can be that the public safety is not at risk. The
New Jersey State Health Commissioner said that mice with the
plague die “very fast” and that the “risk to the public … is slim
to none.” I’m assuming they’re correct but, living fairly close to
Newark, I’ll give any mice I see a wide berth. Actually, I should
also be concerned about fleas. The article mentioned the case a
number of years ago of a New Yorker who contracted bubonic
plague, probably from infected fleas, while visiting New Mexico.
That poor fellow ended up having his legs amputated.

The details of the experiment involving the lost mice are rather
bizarre. The experimenters started out with three sets of 8 mice
in three separate cages. All three sets of mice were inoculated
with a bacterium that causes bubonic and other types of plague.
The 8 mice in one cage were given no vaccine, the 8 mice in the
second cage were given a vaccine known to be effective against
the plague and the 8 mice in the third cage were given a vaccine
being tested. This latter test vaccine was obviously not very
effective since, only three days later, all the mice in that cage
were dead, as were all the mice in the group that received no
vaccine. On the other hand, all the mice in the third cage were
still alive. The dead mice were bagged and placed in a freezer.

Four days later, someone looked in the last cage and only found
7 mice! I’m assuming they were alive, although this was not
mentioned in The Ledger article. The workers then retrieved the
bagged bodies from the freezer and found only 7 mice in each
bag! Unbelievable! I was relieved to read that the animal
handler responsible for not noticing the discrepancies is not
working in the facility at this time. The current thinking or hope
is that their fellow cage mates ate the three missing mice.
Unfortunately, the handler cleaned up and incinerated the
contents of the cages without checking for any mouse remains.

No wonder the FBI was called in. It seems unlikely that each of
the three groups of mice would decide to eat just one of their
fellow inmates. It also seems to me unlikely that, if the mice
escaped, only one from each cage would find its way out. Given
the sloppy handling of the experiment, could it be that whoever
assembled the groups in the first place just didn’t count out 8
mice correctly three different times? Or did someone
deliberately let the mice out of the cages or take them with him
or her? It’s hard to conceive why anyone would do that with all
three sets of mice, or even any of the mice. I should think that a
terrorist would find access to better sources of plague material.

On reflection, there may be a somewhat feasible scenario for the
eating of just one mouse per cage. If the mice tend to eat dead
fellow mice, then it’s possible that the first mouse to die would
get eaten and that, in the two cages where all were found dead,
the rest of the mice either died shortly thereafter or became too
weak to eat before dying. In the third cage, perhaps one mouse
died and the others, in which the vaccine was effective, stayed
healthy and not prone to be eaten. That’s the best scenario I can
come up with for three eaten mice.

The term “bubonic” derives from the prime symptom of the
plague, swollen lymph glands known as “bubos”. According to
my 1962 World Book Encyclopedia, the bubos are most likely to
appear in the groin, armpits and neck. Fever, chills, headache,
body pains and extreme exhaustion are among the other
symptoms. Today, prompt treatment with antibiotics will stop
the disease. This was not the case back in the 1600s, when over
150,000 people died in London alone. In India, over ten million
people died from the plague in 20 years around the beginning of
the 20th century.

Aside from villains deliberately trying to do us in or accidents in
a bioterror lab inadvertently spreading a killer disease, Nature
continues developing its own forms of bioterror. Of most current
concern is the possibility of a pandemic resulting from the spread
of bird flu from Asia around the world. This possible pandemic
has been the subjects of a flood of articles in the media and in
scientific journals. The so-called H5N1 virus is the bad guy, or
at least the one that has garnered the most attention. H5N1 has
either killed or been responsible for the deliberate slaughtering of
tens of millions of chickens. How many other birds and animals
it has killed is unknown, but at least 50 people have succumbed
to H5N1. So far, it seems that the humans have been infected
through contact with infected poultry or other birds but there is
the possibility that H5N1 has evolved or will evolve to be
transmitted from human to human and that’s when we’re all in
trouble.

All this sounds pretty scary. Let’s hope our researchers have the
vaccine or other remedy in hand if H5N1 does decide to jump
from human to human. Those missing mice don’t seem nearly as
frightening now.

Allen F. Bortrum