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Tularemia Outbreak: CDC Refuses Rapid Response

Cold Comfort for Communities Confronting Biodefense Labs
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(Austin, 31 Jan 2005) - Don't count on the US Centers for Disease
Control (CDC) to tell the public about biological weapons accidents.
CDC's refusal to divulge information about the Boston University
tularemia incidents will come as cold comfort for the tens of
millions in the US who live close to (proposed) biological weapons
labs, according to the Sunshine Project.

Tularemia infections related to NIH-funded bioweapons research at
Boston University have recently made international headlines; but
last week CDC refused a legal request to divulge what it knew, and
what it knows, about the circumstances that led to the biological
weapons accidents.

On January 22nd, the Sunshine Project filed an Expedited Freedom of
Information Act Request that asked for the dates on which Boston
University researchers and labs were first permitted to work with
virulent strains of tularemia. It also requested immediate release of
CDC correspondence with Boston University during May and June 2004,
when the first, apparently undetected, tularemia infections occurred.
Understanding the dates of permits under the US select agent rules
and Boston University's relationship with CDC might reveal important
information about the accidents.

But CDC rejected the request on January 25th. It sent its reply by US
Mail, which took four days to arrive. In its refusal, CDC made a
dubious determination under the law. In order to delay its response
for months or more, CDC determined that there is no urgent need to
inform the public about the tularemia accidents nor a reasonable
expectation that release of the requested information would
ameliorate a threat human life and safety - namely, Boston
University's biological weapons research.

CDC (Atlanta, GA) and the NIH Office of Biotechnology Activities
(OBA) in Bethesda, MD, are the two US government offices that are,
insofar as rules exist, in charge of the safety of civilian
biological weapons research. Unlike many aspects of laboratory
biosafety, permits for work with virulent tularemia are a legal
requirement. The United States does not have comprehensive biosafety
and laboratory accident reporting laws.

The Sunshine Project has been calling for comprehensive federal
biosafety law mandating accident reporting and public disclosure
since last year, when it published a lengthy report detailing the
sorry state of US biosafety committees.

"Boston University's tularemia problems have popped the balloon of
bloated and distorted safety claims about the biodefense program,"
says Sunshine Project Director Edward Hammond, "CDC secrecy about
biological weapons accidents will shake remaining confidence in
laboratory safety not only in Boston; but nationwide. By rejecting
disclosure, CDC is signaling intent to continue with the status quo
of indifference, underreporting and secrecy. The solution is to reign
in the sprawling and palpably dangerous biodefense program and to
mandate reporting and prompt public disclosure of laboratory
accidents."

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To view the Sunshine Project FOIA request:
 http://www.sunshine-project.org/publications/pr/pr220105.html

For more information on the state of US Institutional Biosafety Committees:
 http://www.sunshine-project.org/biodefense/ibcreport.html

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