Protests coincide with biohazard alert

WASHINGTON – As huge crowds assembled in the U.S. capital for anti-war protests in late September, biohazard sensors were picking up the presence of small amounts of potentially dangerous bacteria. According to the Washington Post, traces of the bacteria tularemia were found between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, but health officials claimed the levels were too low to be a threat.

"We pretty much feel there is no public health threat here," said Von Roebuck, a spokesman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We just wanted to alert the medical community to watch out for cases."

The bacteria are normally found in rodents and small animals. D.C. Public Health Director Gregg Pane said "the working hypothesis" is that something in the environment “got stirred up,” but he couldn’t explain why the finding was only from a day when the mall was packed with people. "That’s what is not explained," he said. "It was just this 24-hour period and none since."

Tularemia was first described as a plague-like disease of rodents in 1911, and showed epidemic potential in the 1930s and 1940s, when outbreaks occurred in Europe and the Soviet Union. Following World War II, studies continued. The U.S. military developed weapons that would disseminate F tularensis via aerosols and conducted research to better understand it and develop vaccines.

It was one of several biological weapons stockpiled by the U.S. military. An outbreak of the same disease is underway in Russia, and nearly 500 people have so far been reported ill.

Health officials say the usual incubation period is less than a week. Thus, Roebuck advised that people who were on the mall for the protests and don’t have symptoms need not be concerned. The symptoms include fever, chills, headache, muscle ache, joint pain, dry cough and conjunctivitis.

Tularemia doesn’t spread person to person; rather, it can be contracted by direct contact with the bacteria – by swallowing them or, if suspended in air, through inhalation.

Officials have told the press that the quantities detected were too small to have been an attack.