New York subway germ study derailed

New York scientists backtrack on sensational claims that bubonic plague and anthrax exist in the city subway system.

Story highlights

  • New York scientists admit germ study of city subway system was flawed
  • Critics call study "deeply flawed work that makes speculative, sensationalist, and headline-grabbing claims"

New York (CNN)New York scientists are backtracking on their sensational claims that strains of the bubonic plague and anthrax exist in the subway system following a critical letter from the city and federal health officials.

In a highly-publicized study published last February in the journal Cell Systems, scientists associated with Weill Cornell Medical College claimed that some DNA samples on subway surfaces contained fragments associated with anthrax and the bubonic plague
Now the team of scientists, who spent 17 months in New York's sprawling subway system collecting microorganisms, say there is "minimal coverage to the backbone genome of these organisms, and there is no strong evidence to suggest these organisms are in fact present."
    The summary, results and discussion sections of their report "have been revised to remove and clarify misleading and speculative text about pathogenic organisms," they wrote in their correction.
    The admission came after a critical letter about the research from officials from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the CDC.
    Regarding the organism that started the bubonic plague, the letter from health officials said the plague was spread along the West Coast but a "naturally occurring infection has never been observed within 1,000 miles of NYC."
    "A plague outbreak in NYC's urban rat population, let alone sporadic human disease, would not go unnoticed," the letter said.
    As to the strains of anthrax, the health department and CDC officials said that since a number of anthrax cases occurred in New York in 2001 and 2006 such a finding "would be scientifically plausible" but the "data presented were not sufficient to conclude this."
    The city and federal health officials said the claim that antibiotic-resistant bacteria exists also lacked proper substantiation.
    "Unfortunately, deeply flawed work that makes speculative, sensationalist, and headline-grabbing claims actually can detract from the quiet, ongoing, science-based efforts to secure critical infrastructure in NYC and elsewhere," the letter said.