War & Peace: Plague Buster

By Zachary Block '99 / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007

Jane Wong '62
Microbiologist, California Department of Health Services

As a microbiologist at one of a network of eighty-one labs affiliated with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jane Wong is on the front lines in the battle against bioterrorism.

BAM What is it like to be a microbiologist right now?

Wong Actually, it is very exciting. Bioterrorism agents were thought to be very esoteric, and few people really believed anyone would actually use them. I have given many seminars on laboratory identification of these organisms, most of which were poorly attended. Since September 11, however, interest has increased substantially.


BAM How has the recent anthrax scare changed the work at agencies like yours?

Wong We were on increased alert as of September 11. However, by October 10, public-health labs all over the country were inundated with samples to test for the presence of Bacillus anthracis.


BAM How did it go?

Wong The FBI and law enforcement helped by screening specimens that were considered a threat; however, some testing was also done to allay public fear, even though there was no perceived threat. Laboratory capacity was stretched very thin.


BAM It seems that public-health officials were learning as they went. How did you help them?

Wong Telephone consultations achieved a new dimension. No one knew the answers to many of the questions we received from other laboratories and the public. I was left trying to be honest and tell people what we knew and what we did not know and at the same time trying to explain what was being done to protect the public.


BAM How has the atmosphere at your lab changed in recent months?

Wong There is definitely a sense of being overwhelmed. We have also had more contacts with law enforcement people than we ever had before.


BAM Are money and staff members being added to help cope with the increased workload?

Wong Adding resources does not happen overnight in government service. Moving new people into a laboratory to work on pathogenic organisms requires either previous experience or training.


BAM What other work, if any, has suffered as a result of the time tied up with testing for biological agents?

Wong Getting written reports out is a process that has been slowed down, as has our routine work of identifying bacterial cultures submitted to us for identification.Sexually-transmitted-disease testing has not been affected, since these reports have to be timely.


BAM What is it like working with anthrax and the plague?

Wong I enjoy working with bacteria that have had such interesting historical, social, and political influence. It is a real thrill to look at a bacterial culture and realize these bugs are probably descendants of the organisms that caused the Black Death!

- Interview by Zachary Block '99

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January / February 2002