Virus vial missing from Galveston lab

March 25, 2013 2:55:39 PM PDT
UTMB in Galveston is trying to figure out how a vial containing a dangerous virus disappeared.

According to experts at UTMB, the most likely scenario is that the missing vial was inadvertently dropped in the lab, and swept up during routine cleaning. While the virus it contained can be deadly, experts say there is no need for people to panic.

Dr. Scott Weaver, Director of the Galveston National Laboratory, said the missing virus was lost in the level 4 lab, reserved for viruses that can cause fatal infection, in this case, if inhaled.

"Generally, there are no vaccines or therapeutics for these agents that are handled at level 4," said Dr. Weaver.

Guanarito is an emerging disease in a localized region of Venezuela. It's transmitted only through contact with two specific species of rats, neither of which is found in the US.

"Normally people in Venezuela become infected because during the harvest season for crops in the fields, they are working outside and rodents live in these fields and they excrete the virus. Then when dust is stirred up during the harvest, that's breathed in and they become infected," Dr. Weaver said.

Guanarito is being studied here because of past concern it would spread to the US, but that hasn't been the case. Dr. Weaver says now they're working on vaccines for this and other viruses that could be used as a weapon by terrorists. He says that is highly unlikely.

"Really, the only risk would be one of our investigators purposely taking the virus out to use to infect people somehow," said Dr. Weaver.

The missing vial contained about a milliliter of liquid.

"When we handle (the vials) at minus 80 degrees, centigrade, when the entire box is full, it's very hard to handle these vials and sometimes they will stick to your gloves on your fingers," Dr. Weaver said.

UTMB released a statement reading in part they have "confirmed that there was no breach in the facility's security and as such there is no indication that any wrongdoing is involved. The investigation continues."

There are no national standards when it comes to lab designs, construction and operation, according to a report out today by the Government Accountability Office, though the GAO called for such standards some three years ago.

The report will also reveal the higher risk for accidents and safety violations at government, academic and commercial labs across the country.

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