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Published: Tuesday, 9/20/2005

See how they run

IT'S NOT the mice that were blind to danger at a bio-tech research facility in Newark, N.J. It was somebody at the Public Health Research Institute on the campus of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey who apparently absconded with three mice carrying deadly strains of plague.

It begs the question of who, in the name of federal bioterrorism research, is minding the store at one of the top-level containment laboratories in New Jersey? And why did it take more than two weeks for the nearby community to be informed that the three missing mice were infected with the bacteria responsible for bubonic plague?

Apparently once it was discovered that the rodents had disappeared from separate cages in the lab, an intense but quiet investigation was launched by federal and state authorities. The Star-Ledger of Newark reported the FBI is on the case. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also investigating, according to the newspaper.

But even as the search was under way, health experts assured the public there was scant risk from the disease-carrying mice infected with the deadly plague. State Health Commissioner Fred Jacobs said even if the mice got outside the lab they probably died already from the disease.

Not so reassuring.

Health officials say the bubonic plague is contracted through infected rodents or fleas by 10 to 20 people in the United States every year. Most cases can be treated with antibiotics, but about one in seven incidents is fatal.

The plague is not contagious, but left untreated can transform into a pneumonic plague, which can be spread from person to person.

The New Jersey research lab is involved in a six-year federal bio-defense project to discover new vaccinations for the plague- which some fear could be used as a biological weapon.

So the mice vanishing into thin air is more than a little troubling. And federal officials concede they may never be found if they were stolen, even eaten by other lab animals, or somehow misplaced in a colossal accounting error.

How is it that critical government missions to fortify national security through highly sensitive experimentation can themselves be so poorly guarded against security breaches or sloppy oversights?

Such lapses are inexcusable and frightening.



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