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Photo: Joe Putrock

Truth Lies Gasping

Scientists question the Times Union’s reporting on Ward Stone and his role in the 1999 West Nile virus outbreak

By Chet Hardin

Photos by Joe Putrock

Dr. Nicholas Komar loves to speculate on the ways that West Nile virus might have reached the Western Hemisphere, he says, “because that’s all you can do, is speculate.” At one time he had counted 13 different ways that the flavivirus could have made it to our shores. “The most likely scenario is that a mosquito got infected in the Middle East or North Africa, where nobody was doing surveillance, and there was a burst of activity and a lot of mosquitoes got infected. One of those mosquitoes was near an airport and saw a dark space to go rest, in the hull of an airplane. And when they woke up the next morning, they were in New York City. And then they got out of the plane and flew around. They were hungry, so they went and fed on a pigeon or whatever happened to be around. Then that bird went on to infect the mosquito population in New York City. And that’s as realistic as any other theory.”

Komar, a vertebrate ecologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that he spends about 99 percent of his time studying West Nile ecology and developing better surveillance techniques for tracking the virus. He has authored or co-authored more than 80 scientific publications on the subject since August 1999, when the then-unidentified pathogen was racing through the mosquito population in New York City and he was part of the team sent in by the CDC to investigate.

On Aug. 23, 1999, a physician in Queens contacted the city’s health department to report that his hospital was treating an unusually high number of patients suffering with encephalitis, swelling of the brain usually due to viral infection. A week later, the city health department officially invited the CDC in to investigate the growing cluster of encephalitis illnesses.

In June, crows with the encephalitic symptoms—febrile, with head tremors, unable to stand or walk—were spotted dying in violent seizures in the streets of Queens. In July, crows with similar symptoms were seen wobbling down the streets of the Bronx, dying similar deaths. By mid-August, an alarming number of birds were being shipped to the laboratory of the state’s wildlife pathologist, Ward Stone, from throughout the boroughs, as well as from Nassau and Suffolk counties, even Westchester.

Dr. Basil Tangredi, an instructor of conservation medicine at Green Mountain College in Vermont, was a veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator on Long Island at the time, and he recalls the outbreak vividly. “Everyone in New York state was getting all these sick birds, and Ward—and his very, very minuscule team—was working around the clock processing these cases. The fear factor was amazing. It was front-page news for so long, and he was right at the center of the storm on that. He was sending material to everybody to get it diagnosed.”

In a letter dated Nov. 15, 1999, Stone wrote to state Assemblyman Samuel Colman that by the end of August he had diagnosed a “viral encephalitis of unknown specific etymology” as the likely cause of death in some of the birds, along with the more common deaths attributable to shootings, traumas, the fungal infection Aspergillosis and the viral Avian Pox, as well as poisonings.

On Sept. 3, the CDC announced that the city was likely under the siege of a St. Louis encephalitis outbreak. The insecticide malathion was sprayed throughout the city from helicopters. But it was the wrong diagnosis. While St. Louis encephalitis would account for the human deaths, it made no sense with the crows. Birds are carriers of St. Louis, but are otherwise unaffected by the virus. The connection between the bird deaths and the human deaths hadn’t yet been made, although there were suspicions.

“We weren’t sure what virus it was yet, and while we waited to find out, we speculated about what it could be,” says Komar. “We knew that West Nile was a possibility, because we are aware of diseases in other parts of the world. When I did my testing of the specimens that I had collected, I tested them for West Nile virus antibodies and St. Louis encephalitis antibodies and found that they had a high number of West Nile virus antibodies.”

By Sept. 25, the news broke. The CDC had positively identified the West Nile virus for the first time ever in America. In all, seven people were reported to have died in the outbreak, along with thousands of birds.

Over the months that followed, Komar dedicated his laboratory at the CDC to test for West Nile, he says, because there was no laboratory in the country that could handle testing all the dead birds that were being collected. “Thousands of dead birds were submitted to my laboratory from all over the Northeast and Eastern United States. We did the dead bird testing from all the state laboratories.”

Komar’s laboratory developed the testing protocols and guided the states on which birds to test and what kinds of tests to use. “The next year we got funding to support the states to develop their own testing capacities,” he says. Until then, “there was no state-based avian mortality surveillance testing for mosquito-borne viruses.”

Last month, the Albany Times Union published its second expose on Ward Stone in a matter of months. Written by James Odato, it was the two in a one-two punch. In May, the TU had published a long Sunday piece, also written by Odato, detailing a number of allegations made against Stone by colleagues and former subordinates: that he had misused state funds, that he had abused his staff, that he had taken up residency in his office, and had cruelly gut-shot penned deer. The state inspector general opened an investigation due to Odato’s reporting, and Stone countered most of the allegations in the pages of Metroland days later.

The second article, headlined “Ward Stone’s research role raises doubt—Scientists say state wildlife pathologist misdiagnosed 1999 crow deaths, losing weeks of warning,” spent 1,600 words exploring the allegation that Stone’s inability to properly diagnose the vast number of crows that began dying in late summer of 1999 as possibly leading to the human deaths that were to follow.

As Stone puts it, the first article was designed by his enemies to hurt him personally, digging into his private and financial life, going so far as to mention the death of his infant daughter. The second article, he says, “is coming after my science, which is a mistake. I think that you’ll find that my science will hold up. It’s pretty good.”

At the core of Odato’s article is the accusation that Stone is an insubstantial scientist, unconcerned with the rigors demanded by the field, too wedded to his environmental ideology of “chasing down toxics.” And in 1999, the article alleges, he was perhaps blinded by this ideology, failing to grasp the epidemic spreading around him. The article relies almost exclusively on an interview conducted with a former pathologist for the Bronx Zoo, Dr. Tracey McNamara. In the article, McNamara tells Odato that Stone “blew it,” incorrectly diagnosing the bird deaths that his lab was processing, wasting valuable time during those critical weeks of late August.

McNamara, like Stone, was at the heart of the outbreak, and has been widely credited in the media as being instrumental in chasing down the mystery of the West Nile. In the Sept. 26, 1999, New York Times article in which the CDC officially announced its identification of West Nile, Dr. Duane Gubler, the head of the CDC’s arbovirus field station in Fort Collins, Colo., said that the CDC “would not have made the diagnosis of West Nile virus as quickly without Dr. McNamara’s persistent medical sleuthing.” Four days later, a Daily News article reported that McNamara was “credited with pinpointing a virtually unknown virus that eluded the combined resources of the nation’s top public health experts.”

And last year, in a bio for McNamara included in the literature for a lecture at Western University of Health Sciences in California, where she is now a professor, it was noted that she has been “profiled in numerous publications including New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, Nature, Smithsonian Magazine and many others.” Her research from that frightening summer was trumpeted as ultimately leading “to a diagnosis of West Nile virus.”

In Odato’s article, McNamara said that she remembered a “heated conversation” with Stone during Labor Day weekend in 1999. She was yelling at Stone, she said, over a comment he had made in an Aug. 26 Queens Chronicle article, in which he had stated that his preliminary research suggested that the crows in the city were dying off due to pesticides and fungal infection.

From the TU: “I said ‘what is he, nuts?’ ” McNamara said. “I was yelling at him: ‘What are you talking about?’ I said: ‘It’s not pesticides, it’s viral.’ I said: ‘Didn’t you do this, didn’t you do that?’ She says she urged him to send samples to nationally affiliated laboratories.”

Stone says that he doesn’t recall much of the conversation, and he also doesn’t recall offhand the specific date that he began seeking the virology tests from outside laboratories. He doesn’t need to. The outbreak of West Nile was a thoroughly documented phenomenon, the critical dates of which are easily tracked down. Odato, in his article, points to the 2000 report prepared by the United States General Accounting Office. The report notes the date that Stone began contacting state labs, the first step in seeking virology testing for the dead birds, as Aug. 30. The GAO report also noted that McNamara had actually put in her call to Stone on Sept. 1, and not, as Odato reported, “during Labor Day weekend.”

Metroland sought clarification from Rex Smith, the editor of the Times Union, on some of the research that went into the paper’s reporting on Stone. Smith declined to comment weeks ago, stating that if the TU has “more to say about Ward Stone, we will do it in the columns of the Times Union, where readers can have confidence that . . . it will be reported fully and fairly.”

CDC’s Komar worked closely with Stone in the early days of the outbreak, and in the early months to track the pathogen’s spread. He says that he is familiar with Odato’s article, and that he disagrees with the core assertion that Stone’s handling of the outbreak was flawed.

“The very first bird that was submitted and then finally found out to have West Nile infection was a bird that he had processed and then sent on to a federal laboratory,” Komar says, a fact that is overlooked in the article, “because all of the people telling the story didn’t even realize that that was the case.”

The initial path for Stone to receive the virology testing needed, says Komar, was to first go to his state health department. From there, he appropriately struck out to other agencies.

“He didn’t have a virology laboratory,” says Komar. “He didn’t have a means of identifying viral infections in his laboratory, so he would have to send specimens on to another laboratory for that purpose. And in the case of an unknown pathogen, he would have to go to a federal laboratory, and the appropriate laboratory was the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa.”

“As things came to a head in early September,” Komar recalls, “laboratories like Ward Stone’s and Tracey McNamara’s at the Bronx Zoo started submitting specimens that they had to the national veterinary laboratory, and they tested them all at once, isolating a virus. That virus was sent on to the CDC for identification, and was identified as West Nile virus. And when they went back to see which specimens had been sent, the two specimens that I remember, one of them came from Tracey McNamara’s laboratory and one came from Ward Stone’s laboratory. And the one from Ward Stone’s laboratory was collected a day earlier than the other one.”

“So that was the first bird positively identified for West Nile. It was an American crow from Stone’s laboratory,” Komar chuckles. “So that’s the real story.”

According to Dr. Doug Pedersen, with the National Veterinary Services Laboratory, the virus isolated in the American crow that Stone submitted is the official reference strain of West Nile in America, “the virus that we chose to propagate in the lab and continue to work with.”

Further, Komar flatly rejects McNamara’s claim that had it not been for Stone, lives likely could have been saved. “No. That’s not fair, because as soon as it was identified that there was a cluster of human disease, that cluster was investigated. As soon as it was investigated, mosquito-born viruses were considered a possible source. And as soon as it was identified to be a mosquito-born virus, the same precautions would have been taken regardless of what kind of virus it was. The identification of West Nile virus in New York City did not alter what was done to protect human health. Those steps had already been taken.”

“If you are not aware of a potential problem and you aren’t doing surveillance, then you aren’t aware of a problem until it has blown up in your face,” Komar says. “And by the time you can respond to it, the natural process of transmission can be over. There is nothing that would have been done differently in that summer. Not a thing.”

‘Scientists familiar with Stone’s work at the time,” Odato wrote, “say he had received dead crows several weeks before the first human infections surfaced on Aug. 23, but misdiagnosed what was killing the birds, blaming fungus and pesticides.” Alongside McNamara, Odato presented Dr. John Charos, a veterinarian with New York City’s Central Veterinarian Services. According to Odato, Charos “first sent dead crows to Stone around July 1999, he said, because he thought the state pathologist was the right person to handle the mystery.”

Odato continued: “He said Stone allowed him to send the dead birds by overnight mail and bill the state. ‘. . . Did the guy drop the ball? Maybe he wasn’t looking deep enough.’ ”

When contacted by Metroland, Charos said that he hasn’t seen the Odato article and asked for a copy to be e-mailed to him. When told how he was quoted and in what context, Charos expressed surprise.

“You know, as I told the other reporter—and it looked like that reporter really wasn’t interested in all the facts, as far as what took place that fall—I think the system worked as it should,” Charos says. He says that it was apparent to him that Odato was working on a story “that was being sought after.” Odato’s questions, he says, “were skewed. He was asking, ‘Can you find any faults? He said it was pesticides and fungal.’ And my comment to him was, that was the most common thing.”

Stone’s DEC colleagues Joseph Therrien and Lawrence C. Skinner were also quoted in the article. When contacted by Metroland, DEC spokesman Yancey Roy said that the agency is not speaking about Stone due to the IG’s investigation.

A call to Therrien’s cell phone was not returned.

“As I told the other reporter: Did Ward drop the ball because he was looking for funguses and pesticides?” Charos asks. “Basically, common things happen commonly. You have a new disease that’s never been in this country before, human nature would be to look for the common things, not to look for West Nile.”

He notes that bird deaths from pesticides are an all-too-common occurrence, and that there would have been nothing shocking if Stone’s preliminary findings turned up a large number of such deaths. “Throughout the year, birds die, and in the summer more so, as there are more poisonings going on, more pesticides.”

“We are always trying to fit what we are seeing into the context of what we have seen before,” says Dr. Tangredi of Green Mountain College. “When you hear hoof beats, you look for horses and not zebras. Here were these crows coming in with head tremors, they were in a stupor, and not because they were debilitated, most of the time they were in fine flesh. And we were used to seeing birds like I just described that were poisoned. So Ward is hearing hoof beats, and so toxics are probably running through his mind. I know that it was running through mine. I was thinking, My God, are we starting to see something new that ChemLawn is using? But as it unfolded, the pattern of illnesses of the birds was different than it would be for a pesticide. Then you start expanding your view of what it could be. You start sending samples to various labs.”

Tangredi argues that Stone was “always trying to chase down toxics,” as one of his critics in the TU article puts it, because there were always toxics to be chased down. He points out that it was Stone’s work investigating the pesticide diazinon that was “instrumental in getting that banned in turf grass in New York state.” The first case in which Tangredi worked with Stone was on the death of a great horned owl “that died before my very eyes right on my exam table. Ward diagnosed it as Chlordane toxicity. That led to publications. He led the charge to get Chlordane banned for New York state.”

Dr. Douglas Roscoe, supervisor of the Office of Fish and Wildlife Health and Forensics for New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, points out that there is never one thing going on by itself, that wildlife pathologists will see a myriad diseases and poisonings, especially in the late summer weeks. “There is a seasonality to certain mortality events, and when you are talking about that time of year, July and August, and into September, you have those kinds of poisoning events. But the fact that he had poisoning events that he was involved with didn’t alter the fact that he was certainly involved with West Nile virus early on, before anyone else really had a grasp on what was happening with the crows.” He says that it was Stone who had contacted him in September to warn him that there was an unknown pathogen that was killing crows in New York and that he ought to be on the lookout in his state.

“In terms of what is happening now,” says Tangredi, “with the questioning of who thought of what first, and all this retrospective, hindsight deal, that’s sort of unusual for scientists. This discussion should take place in the pages of the journals, where during the process of editorial evaluation of a proposed paper, the people reviewing the paper would question certain things. In order to do that, you have to have all of your references lined up. You have to have all of your documentation. It is a lot easier to tell it to a journalist.”

Charos says that he can’t find fault with Stone’s performance. “I think that it has become more of an issue of bragging rights,” he says. “I don’t understand the politics behind all of this. I don’t even know why it is even an issue. I am surprised that, years later, this is even going on.”

When contacted by Metroland, McNamara said she feels that she has been quoted extensively on the subject of the early days of West Nile, and maintained that what she is solely interested in is people learning from the mistakes that were made in 1999, in the hopes of better protecting against another outbreak.

In April of this year, she told Newsweek: “The bigger point that gets lost in this whole story is that crows had been dying since early June, but the disease wasn’t quickly and correctly diagnosed by state wildlife officials. Why? Wildlife are free-ranging so losses aren’t immediately noticed and it can take quite a few deaths before an investigation is launched. Second, until just recently, disease diagnosis wasn’t a mandate of state wildlife agencies and it isn’t their forte. Third, labs are terribly underfunded and staff may not even be required to have actual training in diagnostic pathology. Put those all together and you have a real vulnerability as far as surveillance goes.”

Dr. Roscoe derides what he calls “the old 20-20 hindsight routine. I suppose a nuclear blast over the marshes would have resolved it. Unfortunately, biological phenomenon don’t lend themselves to retrospective control efforts.”

At first, Roscoe refused to speak with Metroland. “I am familiar with the articles about Ward, and I do not want to participate,” he said, slamming down his phone. Reached a second time, and with a little coaxing, the longtime colleague of Stone responded to the chief allegation made in Odato’s article, that the spread of West Nile might have been stayed had it not been for Stone’s response.

“When you introduce a disease into a naïve population, it has a tendency to explode and you have an epidemic. And you can’t get ahead of it,” he says, adding that he believes that the 1999 response to West Nile was “actually a surprisingly rapid and efficient response.”

Roscoe met Stone in 1973, when, as a young college graduate, he went to work with him in Delmar as a fish and wildlife technician. Stone had been the state’s wildlife pathologist for only four years at the time. “I remember when I was working with Ward, our theme at that time was, ‘If you aren’t catching hell for something, you aren’t doing your job.’ And I don’t think that that has changed. There is nothing that our agencies can do without someone being disenchanted.”

Roscoe says that he hasn’t read the TU articles about Stone, and he doesn’t plan to: “I don’t see much utility in them.” As to why some might be criticizing Stone in the pages of the local daily, he says, “There is always that ever- present human foible jealousy, and you can be certain that some of these people might be jealous.”

“In my experience,” Roscoe says, “Ward has been on top of a lot of topical and important disease problems. The one thing that I am sure of is that there certainly wasn’t any bounds to Ward’s interests in causes of mortality.”

“Some of the early work on Chlordane triggered additional work that we did in New Jersey,” Roscoe continues. “We hadn’t even diagnosed it in New Jersey and Ward got a bird from New Jersey from some woman who owned property in Bergen County, and somehow it got up to Ward. And he said, ‘Hey you got chlordane over there.’ And I was like, ‘How about that.’ If Ward wasn’t so obstinate, he wouldn’t have been so successful in ferreting out these unusual events and getting explanations for these complex things that happen. He has a list of collaborators on the articles that he has written, so it is not like he is a lone wolf out there. He appears to have an orderly, scientific approach to things. He can support his work through refereed publications.”

But you can be certain, Roscoe says, that Stone’s pioneering, combative approach to environmental science has earned him “the double-edged sword of notoriety.”

For his part, Stone seems frustrated by the task, years later, of tracking down the dates of when he began sending birds to national laboratories. He spends three hours going through the black binders of documents from the time, stacked two feet high on a small table in what seems like the only air-conditioned room in the Wildlife Pathology Unit building at Five Rivers Environmental Center in Delmar, before finally losing his temper.

“I am not very popular among certain people,” Stone says, “because I can be demanding. I despise lazy people. Anyone that comes to wildlife pathology ought to be here to save the world.”

He is equally frustrated by the idea that anyone would claim that they were the single person who led to the positive identification of West Nile in those confusing weeks in 1999. “That was a team effort. And I was working with a good team, the best team,” Stone says. “The truth is, had there been no Tracey McNamara, had there been no Ward Stone, the outcome, what finally took place, wouldn’t have been significantly changed.”

He abruptly loses interest. “This is a waste of my time,” he says, jumping to his feet, wide-eyed. The interview is over. There is a botulism outbreak in lakes Erie and Ontario that he ought to be out investigating. Thousands of birds are dying. There is science to be done.

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