A vial of a potential bioterror agent is missing from a maximum-security research lab in Texas report, but officials say that the virus most likely has been destroyed and poses no threat.
The incident was voluntarily disclosed on Monday by the Galveston National Laboratory, USA Today reports.
Scott Weaver, the Galveston lab's scientific director, said that a routine check of the lab 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, USA Today reports.
But checks of the lab’s security systems showed no malfunctions and no unusual entries to the lab or the freezer since November, when a previous inventory recorded the vial, USA Today reports.
Galveston and other labs experiment with bioterror agents to develop vaccines and treatments.
Weaver said the incident was reported immediately to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as required by law.
CDC officials, who reported the matter to the FBI, concurred that it was “extremely unlikely” the virus was stolen, USA Today reports.
An investigation is continuing.
“They did not consider this a public-health threat or a potential theft,” Weaver told USA Today. “We certainly wouldn't want to be in a position where anybody in the community felt we were trying to cover anything up.”
According to USA Today, the virus in the vial missing at the Galveston lab occurs naturally in rodents in Venezuela. At harvest, people have become infected by breathing dusty soil particles contaminated with virus excreted by the rodents, Weaver said.
Of those who are sickened, he told USA Today, about a third die from hemorrhagic fever.
Because there is no treatment or vaccine against the 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, USA Today reports.
Weaver told the newspaper that 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 — then later swept up and incinerated with other lab waste.
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