Easily weaponized virus goes missing from Texas lab
University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) President David L. Callender says that a vial holding a small portion of the South American virus Guanarito has gone missing.
The exotic strain, first discovered in Venezuela in the 1980s, can cause infected humans to contract a rare hemorrhagic fever that, with symptoms such as high temperature, convulsions and hemorrhaging has a mortality rate of just over 23 percent. Between 1989 and 2006, Venezuelan government has spotted over 600 cases of the illness.
Callender insists in a statement emailed to UTMB employees last week that the virus is "not known to be transmitted from person-to-person and therefore poses no appreciable public health risk.” Because of the very real possibility of terrorists using samples of the virus for biological weapons, however, the US Centers for Disease Control considers Guanarito to be a Biosafety Level 4 risk and requires it to be stored among the most secure facilities in the country.
“Biosafety Level 4 is required for work with dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections and life-threatening disease that is frequently fatal, for which there are no vaccines or treatments, or a related agent with unknown risk of transmission,” the CDC explains.
The school has no idea where the vial went and says routine inspections last week left faculty scratching their head. Per the CDC’s Level 4 risk handling requirements, though, all facilities where such viruses are stored must contain a logbook or other means of commenting the date and time of all persons entering the lab which must be maintained at all times.
“This is the first time that any vial containing a select agent has been unaccounted for at UTMB,” Callender says. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was notified immediately, and UTMB simultaneously began a rigorous process to ensure the safety of its researchers, employees and the community. UTMB has confirmed that there was no breach in the facility’s security and there is no indication that any wrongdoing is involved.”
Callender adds that the facility staff suspects the vial was destroyed, but offers no logic or reasoning for that assumption. It is studied at locations like the University of Texas’ Galveston national laboratory because the “federal government prioritizes it for research because it has the potential to be used a weapon by terrorists,” The Houston Chronicle reports.
"We don't think anything that happened this past week endangers the community," Scott Weaver, the laboratory's scientific director, adds to the paper. "We think this is an error that any one facility is inevitable and we are going to improve to prevent this in the future."
Meanwhile, two new government reports suggest that security breaches at facilities just like the one in Galveston could give terrorists the means of using biological weapons to conduct massively fatal operations anywhere in the world. The Government Accountability Office released one study on Monday that said the US is at an increased risk for catastrophic accidents at these laboratories, despite being urged 3 years earlier for scientists to more thoroughly secure their facilities.
A second study, released in November by the inspector general auditor of the US Department of Agriculture, said "there is increased risk of the misuse of select agents and the potential for serious security violations going undetected” because of security lapses.
Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, called the USDA study "very troubling" and, according to USA Today, remarked that "The inadequate and lax inspection practices of USDA raise additional concerns about their ability and independence to conduct effective inspections of CDC's labs to ensure safety.”