The US bioterrorism program has claimed another victim. Not from a lab accident. Not from an attack. But from a ridiculous and mindless application of regulations meant to protect us from malefactors but which have instead punished scientists who may (or may not) have made missteps in this new Alice-in-Wonderland that is the biodefense world. The latest tragedy involves A highly regarded geneticist, Robert Ferrell at the University of Pittsburgh, who has just pled guilty to failing to follow proper mailing procedures. The actual charge he pled guilty to was “mailing an injurious article”, although no injurious article was ever involved. Details, details. He pled guilty not because he thought he was guilty of a crime but because, as his daughter said, he was exhausted after fighting the more serious and even more absurd charges of mail fraud. This miscarriage of justice has been well covered by others, especially zootfloggin at DailyKos and my SciBling, Tara Smith at Aetiology. You should read their posts for the gory details.
Here is a snippet of Tara’s post, giving some background:
Dr. Ferrell’s story begins in 2004. Ferrell ordered two isolates of bacteria from the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), a central repository for all types of biological samples. The species that Ferrell ordered were Bacillus subtilis, a soil bacterium sometimes used to model its pathogenic cousin, Bacillus anthracis, and Serratia marcescens, a ubiquitous bacterium that occasionally causes opportunistic infections. These species of bacteria are commonly used in high school and college microbiology labs because of their low pathogenicity. (Serratia is particularly nice because it produces a red pigment as it grows). Ferrell then mailed these to another professor and artist, Dr. Steven Kurtz of SUNY-Buffalo and founder of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). (Tara Smith, Aetiology)
Kurtz’s art exhibit was designed to raise awareness of what he believed were the hazards of genetically modified food. He ran afoul of the feds when Kurtz’s wife died of heart failure and the investigating officers saw the art exhibit and called the FBI. This was in 2004 as the Bush terror-propaganda machine was geared up for the elections. The story of what happened to Kurtz, as he was trying to bury his wife, is too sordid and too cruel to summarize. Better to go to Tara’s post. So what does this have to do with Ferrell?
Ferrell obtained the cultures for the two organisms from the American Type Culture Collection, a repository for microorganisms in culture. When I was in highschool I ordered Staph aureus from them for a science project and they sent it to me. Staph aureus is commonly found on human skin and nasal passages, but it is also a human pathogen. When I ordered it, 40 years ago, no one asked questions. But now there is a lot of paperwork, including a (routine) Material Transfer Agreement that says you’ll use the bugs only in your own laboratory. But Ferrell gave some of the two cultures from ATCC to Kurtz for his art exhibit.
As Tara points out, this would ordinarily have been a case between Ferrell and ATCC. But instead, using a broad and vague definition of mail and wire fraud that was a part of the just passed Patriot Act, the Bush feds charged both Kurtz and Ferrell with those crimes, felonies which under the law could have brought them 20 years in prison. Both men were vulnerable. Kurtz had just lost his wife. Ferrell was about to undergo marrow transplant for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Since the case started Ferrell has had two small and one major stroke. I don’t know Ferrell, but zootfloggin does, and here is his thumbnail sketch:
Who is Bob Ferrell? He’s the Chairman of the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh. A gentle man with a congenial Southern accent who wouldn’t hurt a fly–Drosophila excepted–who was suspected of terrorism. I’ve known Bob for several years and you will never meet a more unlikely villain. Not only is he a superb scientist, he is not afraid to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures by working with artists and anthropologists to apply molecular biology to their disciplines. A model scientist–all non-scientists wish the rest of us would be more like him. (zootfloggin Diary, Christmas, Wire-Fraud and the Click of Mussolini’s Boots-A Science Diary)
Enough said about this case. I think it speaks for itself. But I want to make an additional observation about one of the “injurious articles,” Serratia marcescens that Ferrell “shipped” (even though as far as I know he just handed it to Kurtz). Serratia is used in highschool biology labs. It can cause disease if sprayed in a weaponized form, but obviously Ferrell didn’t do this and had no intention of doing it. It is widely available and not hard to find in the environment. Ferrell got nailed for handing it to Kurtz.
But no one got nailed for this:
For six days in late September 1950, a small military vessel near San Francisco sprayed a huge cloud of serratia particles into the air while the weather favored dispersal.
Then the Army went looking to find out where it landed. Serratia is known for forming bright red colonies when a soil or water sample is streaked on a culture medium — a property that made it ideal for the bio-warfare experiment.
Army tests showed that the bacterial cloud had exposed hundreds of thousands of people in a broad swath of Bay Area communities including Sausalito, Albany, Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro, San Francisco, Daly City and Colma, according to reports that later were declassified. Soon after the spraying, 11 people came down with hard-to-treat infections at the old Stanford University Hospital in San Francisco. By November, one man had died. Edward Nevin, 75, a retired Pacific Gas and Electric Co. worker recovering from a prostate operation, had succumbed to an infection with Serratia marcescens that attacked his heart valves.
The outbreak was so unusual that the Stanford doctors wrote it up for a medical journal. But the medics and Nevin’s relatives didn’t find out about the Army experiment for nearly 26 years, when a series of secret military experiments came to light. (San Francisco Chronicle)
There is no evidence the Army alerted health authorities before or after they conducted a mass exposure of a major American city. But Bob Ferrell? Throw the book at him.
Added note, Legal Defense Fund: I was remiss in not including the link to the Ferrell-Kurtz legal defense fund: CAE defense fund (PayPal).