Sunday, February 22, 2004

Rabbit Fever genome decoded 

The Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California has announced that two teams of scientists have sequenced the genome, or genetic blueprint, of two separate strains of Francisella tularensis, the bacterium that causes tularemia, commonly known as rabbit fever.

Tularemia is highly infectious, but seldom fatal. It causes fever, pneumonia-like symptoms, glandular and intestinal disorders. Humans can contract tularemia through insect bites and through contact with animals such as rabbits and prairie dogs. Tularemia is treated with antibiotics.

Francisella tularensis, named after Tulare County, California, is on the Department of Defense list of bacteria posing a potential biological threat. Other bacteria on the list cause anthrax, plague, brucellosis, glanders and Q fever. Tularemia is also listed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as a Category A threat to national security. The other Category A diseases are anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox and the viral hemorrhagic fevers, such as Ebola, Lassa and Marburg.

Lawrence Livermore's press release stated that knowledge of the gene sequence of F. tularensis “could help researchers develop more effective vaccines and better methods for detecting, diagnosing and treating tularemia.”

But the same press release notes that the research into the genetics of F. tularensis was done at U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden, with researchers from Porton Down, United Kingdom (the UK's big weapons lab), the Swedish Defense Agency, the CDC's Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases, Fort Collins, Colo.; and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Spring, Md.

Part of the funding for the research came from the DOE, which has strong financial and programmatic ties to the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, the UK Ministry of Defense, the Swedish Ministry of Defense, and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

This doesn't sound like research done to keep hikers, hunters and rabbit-handlers safe from tularemia.

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