Two mice infected with Yersinia pestis , an organism the causes plague are unaccounted for at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), a research institute located in Newark. This incident is yet another example of a research facility working with BSL4 select agents taking a lackadaisical approach to record-keeping and research protocol regarding the disposal of  microbiological hazardous waste. UMDNJ’s director,  Dr. David Perlin, said “the experiment was part of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) bio-terrorism program” to develop a vaccine for plague.

The frozen remains of two mice injected with the organism that causes plague have not been accounted for seven weeks after being discovered missing at a University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey facility in Newark, the university said Friday.

The FBI investigated and determined there was no risk to public health or any indication of the terrorist link.

UMDNJ’s Public Health Research Institute issued a four-paragraph statement late Friday saying it believes the red hazardous waste bag containing the dead mice was sterilized and incinerated along with another bag.

“Although the mice in the missing bag were used in vaccine experiments involving the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the organism that causes plague, UMDNJ has no reason to believe that this situation poses a risk to the safety or health of UMDNJ staff or the community at large,” the university said in its prepared statement.

 University spokesman Jerry Carey said he did not know why UMDNJ waited seven weeks to disclose the missing mice.

Why did UMDNJ wait seven weeks to report the missing mice infected with a pathogen that causes bubonic plague? Could the delay in reporting be due to the fact the facility had a similar incident in 2005?  The 2005 incident involved the disappearance of three live mice from their cages and the mice were never found.

It wasn’t the first time plague-infected mice have disappeared from the New Jersey facility. Four years ago, in September 2005, three live mice infected with bubonic plague bacteria disappeared from various cages. Officials later said they believed the rodents had died.

The supposition on behalf of UMDNJ is dangerous given the alternative and granted this type of  incident is of miniual risk to the staff or the community at large but the fact that it happened at all highlights the need for a closer look at the facility’s practices due to previous mishaps. Consider the rationale given for how the mistake was made, it is plausible with one notable exception; once the mice became infected they should have been tracked until they were destroyed due to the potentially lethal organisms their bodies contain. 

Perlin said when mice die during an experiment, they are double bagged, labeled then sprayed with a disinfectant before being placed in a freezer for storage, where they are kept for the duration of the research. Afterward, the bagged remains are sterilized then shipped offsite for incineration.

“Any time you are putting something wet in the freezer, there’s a chance bags can stick together, and frequently they do,” he said of the disinfectant-sprayed bags.

Perlin said the institute has begun taking inventory of all logged hazardous waste bags before sterilization following the incident.

We as constituents under the guidance of the Bush Administration have been told repeatedly how the need for effective medical countermeasures to potential biological threats from terrorists out weigh the risk posed by an accidental release from a bio-containment research facility. The question I ask is when the select agents or organisms such as the plague, has public health significance and the research facility does not report an incident until weeks after the incident occured, whom should we fear?  A potential terrorist or the incompetence during the countermeasure research?

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