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Interview With Plague Expert

Aired January 15, 2003 - 14:07   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: If you're just tuning in, we're following a breaking news story about some plague samples reported missing from Texas Tech University, possibly 30 to 35 vials of bubonic plague. FBI is now involved, so is the CDC.
On the phone with us now, Dr. Michael Osterholm, he is with the Centers for Infectious Diseases, the Research and Policy Division.

Doctor, your first reaction to what you're hearing thus far on this story?

DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Well, I think one of the things we have to do is take a step back, and I'm afraid that this story is beginning to gain a life of its own and the simple fact that the vials are missing is obviously not a good thing, but I don't think there is anything imminent with this that would suggest that anyone who might have these vials could actually perpetrate a bioterrorism event because these vials of bacteria by themselves are not what you'd need actually, to do a large scale bioterrorism event.

And second of all is the fact that these types of bacteria are actually somewhat available, you might say, in the environment. Plague, as was discussed earlier in the program, actually is a commonly-occurring disease in the southwestern United States, particularly in rodents, prairie dogs, and so forth. And almost any researcher could technically go out and capture these same kind of bacteria by just doing sampling in the environment.

PHILLIPS: Doctor, we appreciate your honesty, because we want to make sure we put this into proper perspective. As you and I are talking, right now, we're looking at a live picture via our CNN affiliate KLBK in Lubbock, Texas. We are waiting for city officials to take to the podium. They will hold a press conference with regard to this story that, as you say, has sort of taken on a life of its own.

So doctor, right now, you're not concerned about this? You don't think the threat of bioterrorism is something that is evident here?

OSTERHOLM: Well, I -- first of all, the risk of bioterrorism in using plague as a bioterrorism-related agent, Yersinia pestis, the causative agent in plague, is a real concern in this country, and we're doing a great deal to better prepare the country should this happen. But that's a very, very long step to go to there from where we are at now.

First of all, to actually develop a bacteria that is dried in a powder form in sufficient quantities, we would take pounds of this material, unlike what we might see, for example, with anthrax spores, which you could use a much lesser amount. That's a big step to go from having a vial of it to actually being able to perpetrate an actual event.

Second of all is there's a lot of misconception out there about the disease itself. Plague is a disease that is frequently found in the rodent population, particularly the southwestern United States. It actually occurs normally when fleas, which bite prairie dogs, then bite humans. That's how, you mentioned earlier on, the bubonic plague, that is how that actually occurs, is when the bite of the flea actually then causes the bacteria to enter the human body.

Pneumonic plague is a very, very rare form of this. So even if we had a plague problem in this country, less than 3 to 5 percent of cases ever turn into pneumonic plague or that of pneumonia, where you transmit it that way.

So I think we have to step back, get the facts, and say that while this is not a great situation here, it's not one that is imminent or that there is some risk right now of the country being hit by a plague attack.

PHILLIPS: Could the -- if, indeed, it's bubonic plague that is in these vials...

OSTERHOLM: First of all, let me back up. That is a misconception. There is no such thing as bubonic plague in the vials.


OSTERHOLM: What is in the vials is Yersinia pestis. That is a bacteria. What happens is that bacteria can enter the human body most often through a bite of a flea, for example, or potentially a bite, actually, of an animal. Cats, for example, will get this particular infection and they could bite and scratch and cause you to get it.

Most often, when it enters your body, you develop what's either called bubonic plague, as you've shown pictures of where it develops into the lymph nodes and then sometimes gets into the bloodstream. Other times it gets into the bloodstream itself, and that is called septicimic (ph) plague.

And then, only in a very, very rare instance does it go on and progress to pneumonic plague. And so, each of those are the same bacteria causing those different conditions. So when you talk about this, you should be talking about Yersinia pestis, or plague bacteria in the vials, not bubonic versus pneumonic versus any of these other kinds.

PHILLIPS: And Dr. Osterholm, that's why we have you on the air, because I will be the first one to tell you I am not a medical expert, although I've had a couple classes. So we will -- we'll make sure that we make that clear, that it is bacteria that is in vials, not the bubonic plague itself. This bacteria is something that can lead to bubonic plague. Am I saying that correctly? OSTERHOLM: That's exactly right. Now, someone could make up a large quantity of this material, they had additional expertise in how to dry it, make it into a powder that could be disseminated with a device out there in the community. Then you could have people have people breathe and potentially develop pneumonic plague, but that's a very big step to go from having vials of this to actually being able to perpetrate a terrorism event, and that is what -- that kind of expertise would have to go along with whoever took these, if they really were going to be a real risk to our community.

PHILLIPS: Doctor Michael Osterholm, thank you so much. Center for Infectious Disease. He works within the Research and Policy Division. Doctor, thanks for clearing up many of those points for us.


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