GALVESTON — A vial containing a potentially deadly virus has gone missing from a secure biomedical research facility at The University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory.
The medical branch made the announcement Saturday afternoon, while stressing that there was no reason to believe there is a threat to the public.
“There was never any danger to public health,” said medical branch spokesman Raul Reyes, who said the virus in question represented a “very low public health risk.”
The missing vial contains Guanarito virus; an agent that is native to Venezuela and can cause hemorrhagic fever. According to information released by the medical branch, the virus is transmitted only through contact with Venezuelan rats, but it is not believed to be able to survive in U.S. rodents or to be transmitted person-to-person.
The missing plastic vial, which is only about an inch-and-a-half long and has the circumference of a drinking straw, was first discovered missing Wednesday.
Scott Weaver, the scientific director of the Galveston National Laboratory, said the missing vial was first detected by an investigator who was going over his personal records and noticed there was a discrepancy between his count and what was in the lab.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was notified immediately, and the laboratory’s staff began a search of the lab.
Security records were reviewed to make sure no unauthorized people accessed the lab where the virus is stored.
“UTMB has confirmed that there was no breach in the facility’s security, and as such, there is no indication that any wrongdoing is involved,” said the medical branch’s official statement about the incident.
Officials believe the vial has been destroyed as a result of the laboratory’s standard safety procedures.
It is believed the missing vial, which is stored at subzero temperatures, stuck to the glove of a researcher who was working with the virus.
If that happened and the vial dropped to the floor unnoticed, it would likely have been swept up during a routine cleaning of the lab or decontamination area. All collected refuse is first put into a device called an autoclave, where it is disinfected then incinerated. Trash from the lab is never mixed with normal garbage.
Weaver said it is unlikely the vial was removed from the lab intentionally. He said that lab technicians go through rigorous security and mental health screenings before they are hired and must be supervised for 100 hours before they are allowed to work independently.
Weaver said that even if the virus was stolen, it would have little application as a weapon for terrorists and that it would be easier to travel to Venezuela and find an infected rat than it would be to circumvent the laboratory’s security.
“It’s not on the top 10 list of any terrorist group,” Weaver said.
Weaver said the CDC typically receives about 13 reports of missing vials a year, but this is the first case of a vial going missing in the history of the laboratory, which opened in 2008.
Medical branch police were notified about the missing vial and assisted with the investigation.
Guanarito is classified as a select agent by the US Department of Health and Human Services, which means it has potential to “pose a severe threat to public health and safety.”
Reyes said the virus was in the laboratory to be studied in order to prevent it from hurting people and to see if a vaccine could be created. The vial was not the only sample of the virus in the lab.
In the wake of the incident, Weaver said the lab’s security measures will be reviewed.
“We’re certainly disturbed and we’re going to take measures to improve,” Weaver said.
During a routine internal inspection conducted on March 20 and 21, 2013, UTMB could not account for one vial of a select agent.
The vial, containing less than a quarter of a teaspoon of material, had been stored in a locked freezer within a secure laboratory designed and approved to handle this kind of biological material safely (Biosafety Level 4).
The virus in the vial is not known to be transmitted person-to-person and thus poses no appreciable public health risk. The vial does not appear to have been stolen and, most likely, the virus was destroyed during the normal laboratory decontamination and cleaning process. This is the first time that any vial containing a select agent has been unaccounted for at UTMB.
The agent is a virus called Guanarito; it is native only to Venezuela and can cause hemorrhagic fever. In the limited area of Venezuela where the virus is found, it is transmitted only by rodents native to the area and is not believed to be capable of surviving naturally in rodents in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was notified immediately and UTMB simultaneously began a rigorous process to assure the safety of its researchers, employees and the community. UTMB has 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 and it is likely, but not confirmed, that the vial was destroyed during normal laboratory sterilization practices. As per our normal procedures, we have also notified our Community Liaison Committee, which serves as an independent communication and oversight group for UTMB’s high containment research programs.