Researchers slightly grossed out and scared New Yorkers when they claimed there were traces of the bubonic plague on the subway. But a recent correction, by the authors themselves, suggests there was never any real need to worry.
A few months ago, researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College analyzed the different bacteria found across the New York City subway system. The findings, published in the journal Cell Systems, were actually quite interesting. Researchers found a number of different organisms from the fragments of DNA they collected, and almost half of these DNA sequences didn’t match any known species. The problem lies with the microbes researchers associated with the bubonic plague and anthrax.
Christopher Mason and his research team initially claimed that the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which causes the plague, was found on the subway and suggested that “they likely represent normal co-habitants of a shared urban infrastructure [that] may even be essential to maintaining such an environment and likely represent a normal, ‘healthy’ metagenome profile of a city.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene were quick to dispute the “sensational” and “unfounded” claims made by researchers in the study. In their critique, also published in Cell Systems, public health experts say the “authors’ suggestion that humans and plague bacilli have 'interacted (and potentially evolved)' in NYC is unfounded and without scientific merit.”
They argue that the “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.”
Mason and his research team did point out in the initial study that “the results do not suggest that the plague or anthrax is prevalent, nor do they suggest that NYC residents are at risk,” but have gone on to backtrack against the claims refuted by the CDC and New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The researchers note in the recent correction that “there is no strong evidence to suggest these organisms are in fact present, and no evidence of pathogenicity.”
“This is not a retraction,” Mason told the Wall Street Journal. “There was no fault found by the editors or the journal or other scientists in the way the data was gathered and analyzed. It was explicitly a problem of interpretation.”
[H/T: Retraction Watch]