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Last Updated

27 Aug 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2003


UCI scientists join fight against terror

Deepa Bharath, Daily Pilot

UCI CAMPUS Two UC Irvine scientists have received a $3.2-million grant to research vaccines to combat deadly bacteria that terrorists could use as biological weapons.

The money was awarded by the National Institute of Health to Phil Felgner, a researcher with UCI's Center for Virus Research and Luis Villareal, the center's director.

The scientists, over four years, will study Francisella tularensis, a kind of bacteria that causes a pneumonia-like disease called tularensis. It potentially could make people sick for months.

"This organism is probably the most infectious agent known," Felgner said. "People can come down with symptoms by being exposed to just 10 organisms."

The bacteria, however, has only half the number of genes as other commonly known bacteria such as anthrax or E. Coli. It could be fatal in some cases, but the more disturbing aspect is that tularensis can last for so long, Felgner said.

"When you're in the business of bioterrorism there are two things you like to do," he explained. "First, scare people with fatal diseases. Second, you try to put a burden on the economy."

Tularensis could wreak havoc on the economy by keeping people away from work for days.

Officials fear its use as a weapon by terrorists because it can be spread easily using something as simple as a crop duster.

Researchers will either have to come up with vaccines or antibodies to combat tularensis, Felgner said. He said the center will also apply for other grants to research vaccines for small pox and plague. Such diseases, including tularensis, are "high priority," Felgner said.

He said, as a scientist, it is disturbing to him about how badly prepared the country is to fight bioterrorism.

"If you look at a list of diseases we're looking at, you can't say we're prepared at all," he said. "We don't seem to have the foggiest idea what to do about any of them."

But working on finding solutions is the most positive and possibly, the only step to take, Felgner said.

"In five or 10 years if someone attacks us with these diseases and we've done nothing about it between now and then," he said, "we would look awfully stupid."