Polemics over a pest

A controversy rages over whether the Surat plague bacillus was a secret hardsell by a Kazakh chemical firm

Published: Tuesday 15 August 1995

Surat plague patients receivin (Credit: Pradip Saha /CSE)AS defence scientists and health ministry experts rack their brains to get to the bottom of a "newsmen's hypothesis" which says that the Surat plague was caused by a test dose of biological warfare, the prime task of continued surveillance has been effectively sidetracked. Pathologists and microbiologists in New Delhi fear that the disease-causing strains of the Yersinia pestis bacillus could still be living in the rodent and rat-flea populations of the affected areas.

The controversy over the outbreak's cause began with the revelation in July that a Kazakh company was selling the dreaded bacillus. Armchair analysts soon smelt a rat and traced the bacterium's way to Surat through the via media of "militants". Not one to be left behind, the defence ministry set up an enquiry committee headed by the defence science advisor A P J Abdul Kalam.

What fuelled the controversy was the fact that the isolates of the Surat plague bacillus were different from the previously noted strains of the Y pestis. By mid-May, Pasteur Institute, France had confirmed the isolate taken there by members of the Indian Technical Advisory Committee (tac) belonged to "Ribotype-s", according to Saraljit Sehgal, director of microbiology at the National Institute of COmmunicable Diseases. The protein generating ribosomes in cells have a fixed composition. The ribosome structure of the Surat isolates did not tally with that of any known isolates.

According to a tac member, the unique status of the bacillus strain has been confirmed by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Fort Collins, usa, Institut Pasteur, France, and Stavropol Anti-Plague Research Institute in Russia. However, an official statement regarding this is still to come by.

World Health Organization scientists point out that of around 4,000 plague isolates available around the globe, only a few have been properly examined. With plague being bracketed with diseases which have become history, no serious studies have been done for tracking the development of the Y pestis. Says a leading Delhi pathologist, who is a member of India's Technical Advisory Committee (tac): "The last recorded isolate in India dates back to 1964." Consequently, almost no information is available on the past evolution of the bacillus or the present nature of the indigenous strain. "If it (the microbe) was indigenous and epizootic (spread through animals), then there is a likelihood of another outbreak this year," the pathologist says.

There seems to be several missing blocks in the plague jigsaw puzzle. V Ramalingaswamy, tac chairperson and professor emeritus, All India Institute of Medical Sciences had earlier pointed out thatin Beed, plague affected people did not complain of pain in the lumph nodes which is usual in bubonic plague cases. Spot tests did not seem to suggest any aerial spread of infection. tac's scientists are conducting tests in this regard.

But disturbingly, tac's work has dragged on at an agonisingly slow pace due to official bottlenecks. While most researchers involved in tracking down the Surat pestilance are not complaining, some teammembers are having difficulties even in obtaining enough isolates from government hospitals and the Haffkine Institute, Bombay.

Besides, TAC members pooh-pooh the idea of straightaway linking the new features to genetic engineering by defence labs, "How many aerosol cans entire Surat with germs?" jokes a TAC member. Indian news reports, however, link available record of "plague manufaturing" by US defence labs with large-scale import of pesticides soon after the earthquake in Latur and subsequent plague outbreak in Beed and Surat.

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