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Peter Rice '64 defends actions in BU tularemia case

Probe cites lag before BU lab work was halted

Former chief defends process

Boston Globe
March 19, 2005

An internal Boston University investigation into how three researchers were exposed to life-threatening tularemia and fell ill last year has concluded that the senior scientist in charge waited at least a month longer than he should have to halt the project.

The BU report, released yesterday, stated that Dr. Peter A. Rice, who was then chief of infectious disease research at the medical school, ''had reason to suspect" as early as September that scientists working in his lab had been exposed to some strain of tularemia.

But it wasn't until Oct. 28 that Rice stopped research into developing a vaccine against tularemia, a bacterial illness commonly known as rabbit fever. ''The more cautious and responsible approach," the BU investigators wrote, would have been to end research immediately and to notify university safety authorities of his concerns.

The internal report, which excoriates the tularemia researchers for sloppy techniques, is the harshest denunciation from BU so far of Rice's oversight of the work, which is funded by the federal government as part of the Bush administration's campaign to prepare for a terrorist assault by biological means. Tularemia has been identified as a potential agent of bioterrorism.

Yesterday, Rice, who was removed as BU's infectious diseases chief in January and who left the university in February, strongly defended his actions through his lawyer, Michael Fee. The lawyer blasted the BU report as unfair to Rice, in part because he is the only individual mentioned by name.

Fee also said it would not have been reasonable for Rice to have ended research in September, because he did not know anyone had been placed in danger.

Fee acknowledged that Rice was made aware then of results from blood tests performed on lab workers in August. Several of those researchers, including two who became sick in May, tested positive for antibodies against tularemia, evidence of exposure to the bacteria. But that, Fee said, was not an especially surprising result: Scientists working with supposedly innocuous research material in low-security labs routinely develop an equally harmless immune response.

The BU scientists believed they were working with a strain of tularemia genetically engineered to render it harmless. Instead, unknown to them, the material they were studying had become tainted with the lethal variety of the bacterium.

Fee said Rice was not aware in early September of the flu-like illnesses that had stricken two of his researchers in May.

''Dr. Peter Rice did not know about the particulars of the illnesses these individuals had," Fee said. ''He was not aware they had symptoms consistent with tularemia; he was not aware they were treated by antibiotics. Dr. Rice is supervising a large laboratory. Those facts were not known to him."

The third researcher did not become sick until late September, meaning that one scientist might not have been exposed if the work had been quickly halted. That researcher was hospitalized for a week, but she and the others have all recovered.

A close colleague of Rice's at BU also rose to his defense yesterday, breaking a silence that doctors from the infectious disease division have maintained since the tularemia cases became public in January.

Dr. Stuart M. Levitz, a professor of medicine and microbiology at BU, said that Rice had been unjustly singled out. Levitz also questioned whether the harshness of the university's words about the doctor were related to BU's quest to open a high-security lab, known as a Biosafety Level-4, or BSL-4, lab.

''In my opinion, Dr. Rice was made to be the scapegoat for these problems that occurred," said Levitz, who was BU's interim infectious disease chief until a permanent replacement was named last week. ''The lack of support Dr.
Rice received from [Boston University Medical Center] during this difficult process is, in my opinion, disgraceful. I can't help but wonder if this lack of support was due to the political and financial backdrop of the BSL-4 laboratory."

The tularemia exposures, and the findings released yesterday, have galvanized opposition to BU's plans to build a high-security lab in the South End, where scientists could work with the world's deadliest bacteria and viruses, pathogens such as ebola and plague.

''Accidents happen, and there's no such thing as a risk-free laboratory or perfect science," said Philip Warburg, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, among the most fervent foes of the proposed facility.

Warburg said that Rice's failure to recognize sooner that a serious problem had arisen in the lab ''indicates that even seasoned researchers have a remarkable inability to draw logical conclusions from unanticipated occurrences. You would have thought that with the illnesses that occurred, there might have been consideration given to what the cause was, and there wasn't for a goodly period of time."

The report was issued by a committee of university employees appointed by BU administrators.

While critical of safety lapses by researchers, the committee said that even if all procedures had been followed in the Biosafety Level-2 lab where the tularemia work was conducted, those measures would not have been sufficient to prevent exposure to the lethal form of the bacterium. Research on the deadly strain must be carried out in a higher-security lab, the committee said.

Fee's lawyer and Levitz seized on that finding.

''No one in the lab believed they were working with the infectious strain of the tularemia organism," Fee said. ''No BSL-2 procedures would have prevented the transmission of this organism to individuals who are working in close proximity with it."

But Dr. Thomas Moore, acting provost of BU's medical campus, said he was dismayed that Rice did not cease research upon learning in September that some of his researchers had developed antibodies to tularemia.

''I was surprised at it and certainly disappointed and unsatisfied with the quality of that kind of supervision," Moore said.

The report does not provide a solution to the most intriguing mystery still enveloping the tularemia cases: How did the material researchers were using become tainted?

The investigation into the contamination is being conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ''Our investigation is still in process, but we expect it to conclude in the coming weeks," CDC spokeswoman Jennifer Morcone said.

Morcone said that BU has provided all the samples of tularemia that the CDC needs for its investigation but is waiting material to be submitted from the University of Nebraska, which provided the original tularemia sample to BU.