Digital Version of November/December 2014 Print Edition
Vial of biological agent missing at Texas lab
A vial of a potentially hazardous virus is missing from the research laboratory of a Texas medical research facility, but officials said there were no security breaches and the virus doesn’t pose a great risk to the public.
The virus, called Guanito, according to a March 23 statement by University of Texas Medical Branch’ (UTMB) Galveston National Laboratory (GNL), is not known to be transmitted from person-to-person and poses no appreciable public health risk. 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 U.S., said the statement.
UTMB president Dr. David Callender issued the statement to “maintain transparency in matters related to the Galveston National Laboratory…” Callender said the vial was most likely destroyed during routine sterilization of the facility.
The vial was discovered missing, he said, during a routine internal inspection on March 20 and 21, 2013. Callender said UTMB couldn’t account for one vial of the agent. The vial, he said, contained less than a quarter of a teaspoon of material and had been stored in a locked freezer within a secure laboratory that is designed and approved to handle dangerous kind of biological material safely (Biosafety Level 4).
Callender added that this was the first instance at UTMB that that any vial containing a select agent has been unaccounted for. The university, he said, notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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,” said Callender. “The investigation continues, but at this time, it is likely, but not confirmed, that the vial was destroyed during normal laboratory sterilization practices. The lab, according to protocol, also its Community Liaison Committee, that serves as an independent communication and oversight group for UTMB’s high-containment research programs.
The $174 million GNL was dedicated on November 11, 2008 and is owned and operated by UTMB. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health (NIAID/NIH) and other federal agencies, foundations and industry support the research projects, there according to the GNL Web site.
Researchers, it said, study Anthrax, avian influenza, bubonic plague, hemorrhagic fevers (like Ebola), typhus, West Nile virus, influenza, drug-resistant tuberculosis and others at the facility.
The facility has a total laboratory space of 47,826 net square feet, and there are 12,222 net square feet of Biosafety Level 4 space, according to GNL.