News Column

Deadly Virus Missing From Lab

March 26, 2013

Officials at a maximum-security research lab in Texas report that a vial of a potential bioterror agent is missing, but they say it's likely that the virus has been destroyed and poses no danger.

The incident, voluntarily disclosed by the Galveston National Laboratory, comes amid growing concerns about security and safety risks at labs researching germs and toxins that could be used as bioterror weapons.

Scott Weaver, the Galveston lab's scientific director, said Monday that a routine check last week led to the discovery that one of five small plastic vials of an obscure virus called Guanarito was missing from a locked freezer. Checks of the lab's security systems show no malfunctions and no unusual entries to the lab or the freezer since a previous inventory recorded the vial in November.

Galveston and other labs experiment with bioterror agents so they can develop vaccines and treatments.

Weaver said the incident, as required by law, was immediately reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said CDC officials agreed with the lab that it is "extremely unlikely" the virus was stolen.

"They did not consider this a public health threat or a potential theft," Weaver said.

The CDC officials' investigation is ongoing.

The CDC received 88 reports of lost bioterror agents from 2004 to 2010, according to a report the agency published last year. All but one missing sample were determined to be accounting errors or lost packages that were found.

The one confirmed lost package was determined to have been destroyed at a commercial shipping facility, the report said.

USA TODAY reported Monday that two recent reports by government auditors have raised concern about lax federal inspections of bioterror labs and the potential for increased risks of lab accidents. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce is conducting a bipartisan investigation.

The virus that was in the vial missing at the Galveston lab occurs naturally in rodents in Venezuela. During harvest time, people have become infected by breathing dusty soil particles contaminated with virus excreted by the rodents, Weaver said.

Because there is no treatment or vaccine against the deadly virus and it can infect by being inhaled, scientists work with it only when wearing spacesuit-like gear and in Biosafety Level 4 labs, which have the highest safety and security requirements to prevent the release of infectious agents.

Weaver said the most likely explanation for the missing vial is that it became stuck to a researcher's glove and dropped unnoticed to the lab's floor and rolled under equipment, where it was later swept up and incinerated with other lab waste. The frozen vials "stick to about anything ... especially a gloved hand," he said.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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