Tularemia bacteria detected in Columbus, Ohio; no bioterror attack suspected

Published 6 April 2010

BioWatch sensors in Columbus, Ohio, last week picked up higher than normal presence of the bacteria tularemia — a bacteria which may be used in bioterror attacks; Columbus Public Health officials continued to emphasize that people are not at risk and there is no suspicion that bioterrorism was attempted here

The detector that picked up a higher-than-normal level of the bacteria tularemia in Columbus last week is part of a nationwide air-monitoring program called BioWatch, which is designed to alert officials to biological terrorist attacks.

BioWatch includes monitors in more than thirty high-threat metropolitan areas. The Columbus Dispatch’s Misti Crane writes that until now, few people knew there were monitors in Columbus. Local and national government agencies involved in the program would not reveal where the monitors are in central Ohio or elsewhere in the state, nor would they say where the tularemia was detected this week.

“We want to be accountable and transparent,” said a DHS official who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. “The conflict for us is we really don’t want our adversaries to know any of the details about how we protect ourselves.”

Columbus Public Health officials continued to emphasize that people are not at risk and there is no suspicion that bioterrorism was attempted here.

Tularemia is found in rabbits, rodents, and ticks, but it was unclear what prompted the elevated level of the bacteria last week, spokesman Jose Rodriguez said.

The federal official said the sensors collect and filter air, and the filters are tested at least once a day to look for biological agents that could be used to intentionally harm people. Anthrax, plague, botulism, and smallpox are among the biological threats most often named.

The program has been in place since 2003, and this is not the first time a monitor has detected elevated levels of a toxin that turned out to be no cause for concern. Similar tularemia alerts have been made in Washington, D.C., Houston, St. Louis, and Philadelphia.

BioWatch, which is a partnership among several federal and local agencies, has not yet detected a biological attack.

Detection for biological agents is notoriously challenging. “You’re talking about finding evidence of a living organism. DNA testing is not something that is as easy as a smoke detector or some chemical detectors,” the DHS official aid.

Tularemia can be passed to people through tick bites and contact with wild animals, said Carl Gelhaus, a principal research scientist at Battelle. Symptoms are flulike, and also can include skin ulcers and swollen lymph nodes, he said. Fewer than 200 cases a year are reported in the United States.

Gelhaus is studying tularemia in hopes of finding new ways to protect humans against infection and illness. Those could include a vaccine and antibiotics.

Even though the detection of bacteria last week in Columbus did not uncover a terrorism plot, it did serve an important purpose, the DHS official said. “There’s nothing like getting a hit and detecting something that you’re concerned about to really bring everyone together and test the response and preparedness system,” he said.