"Plague Death" Of Scientist: Unanswered Questions

by Johanna Faust.

I would alert the perspicacious reader to the still unanswered questions, crazy hypothesis, and not-so-crazy ones.  Thus my little round of research may prove useful to another, or perhaps this is only for my own peace of mind.

Why his death is of a sudden in the news is a question I have no answer for, but am glad of it for the sake of his family, and their unanswered questions.  A detailed biography, including a technical overview of his life's work, is hereThe article by Steve Zeltner, Chairman of the California Coalition for Workers Memorial Day, is the most professional piece I have seen on Indybay, and well worth the read in its entirety.  

An excerpt:

Professor Casadaban had been working on a live attenuated vaccine strain of Yersinia Pestis, a strain of plague, which was approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) safe for humans and for researchers in the lab that no one had died from it. CDC and Researchers called it a vaccine strain (live-attenuated vaccine strain) and excluded the strain from their Containment list of pathogens in 2008. Professor Casadaban had worked at the University of Chicago Department of MGCB and Committee of Virology at the University of Chicago from 1980-2009.

When the family came to Chicago for the funeral, a family member requested the Hospital autopsy team to investigate and later identified that Yersinia Pestis, its live-attenuated vaccine strain, KIM D27, had been the actual cause of death. University of Chicago is a power house of Infectious Disease Experts and is the Center of Excellence in federal Grant support for bioterrorism, ironically, nothing appeared to these experts that Yersinia Pestis and its live attenuated Strain of KIM D27can be dangerous to the lab researchers and public at large. No one from the University and the Center of Research attended him while he was sick. No one warned the University of Chicago Hospital Emergency Room doctors to treat him for the dangerous pathogen, which can be acquired from work. Furthermore, upon his death, no one from the University and its Institutions even suspected Yersinia Pestis pathogen to be the cause of death.

Once Yersinia Septicemia on the live-attenuated vaccine strain had been identified to be the cause of death, 20 people made up of the investigational team from CDC, OSHA and Chicago Public Health (CPH) as well as from University of Chicago visited the site in the investigation of his death. Still today, one year later, CDC, CPH and OSHA have not released their report to the family. OSHA issued a letter of BSL2 compliance though no specific details on their approval were substantiated in their claim.

NIH, which supported the federal research activities of Professor Casadaban and that of the Center of Excellence Grants had not even began their investigation of the case regarding serious concerns and issues relating to the health and safety conditions of the laboratories at the University and nationwide laboratories. The containment and bio-safety rules regarding pathogenic bacteria in public health and safety should be investigated, seriously evaluated and explored particularly on the eve of the death of Professor Casadaban. 

(

More questions emerge in Newscientist's Short Sharp Science Blog.  Don't believe any source that says the cause of death is certain, I would say, not only because details of which Yersinia strain are being withheld, but also because (as I have blogged before, elsewhere), Yersinia's responsibility for the Black Death is, or should be, in question. 

Casadaban was reported to have been working with a weakened vaccine strain of Yersinia pestis, intended for the development of vaccines against plague. However, doctors are not sure the bacilli in Casadaban's blood were the cause of death, or how they got there. So what's going on?

Y. pestis has been linked to the medieval Black Death, though proof has been elusive. We do know that it kills several thousand a year by causing bubonic plague, and it is considered a potential biological weapon.

The University of Chicago has not revealed which strain the Yersinia was, but says it should have been safe....http://news.uchicago.edu/news.php?asset_id=1711


The strain seems likely to have been EV76, which is used as a vaccine in Russia and Madagascar. It is considered unlikely to revert to the virulent strain - but even without reverting, it kills some mice immunised with it.

Worse, up to a fifth of people vaccinated with EV76 develop flu symptoms such as fever, headache, weakness and malaise, according to Rick Titball of the University of Exeter, UK, a leading Yersinia expert. Some even need hospitalisation, he says, though no deaths have ever been reported that we know of.

(Read more)

While I do not agree completely agree with another post of the same title, I agree with the general thrust, as I find that I too must ask "Who Killed Malcolm Casadaban and Why?" even as the blog which forms its context dissuades hyperlinking our respective work.

I will, however, call your attention to a similar article, if more daring: 

What's so strange, about this case, is that the 'strain' was weakened so as to not cause this. None of his friends, co-workers or family has it.

What caught my eye was the mention that they are looking into something that was in the professors biological make-up to make him susceptible to this disease. 

Was this a DNA specific attack?"

(Read more)

Well, no, attack is not the right word. And the plague is not easily transmissible in its most common form, so it probably was not, being an attenuated vaccine.  But plague is remarkably 1918-influenza-like, and the "California" or "Ukraine" version of H1N1 that surged right after Casadaban's death is remarkably plague-like.

To recap: details of which Yersinia strain are being withheld; Yersinia's responsibility for the Black Death is, or should be, in question; the strain he was working with, used in vaccines, was so weak it was not given special handling (and if it should have been, more people should be dead);  he died right before the outbreak of 'Ukrainian Flu,' that many thought resembled pneumonic plague, of 2009; this flu resembled Spanish Flu (recently exhumed) which itself resembled the Black Death enough to prompt some to consider them one and the same (e.g., "Did the 1918 flu virus cause the Black Death?" here).

And so I leave you, Gentle Reader, as my last source left me, with a link to Steve Quayle's Updated List of Dead Scientists.

Be seeing you.

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