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Missing virus vial raises concerns at UTMB facility

Erin Mulvane, Houston Chronicle
Updated 11:05 pm, Sunday, March 24, 2013
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A vial containing a potentially harmful virus has gone missing from a laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch, officials said.

The missing vial, which contains less than a quarter of a teaspoon of an infectious disease, had been stored in a locked freezer designed to handle biological material safely in the Galveston National Laboratory on UTMB's campus, officials said.

During a routine internal inspection last week, UTMB officials realized one vial of a virus called Guanarito was not accounted for at the facility.

Scott Weaver, the laboratory's scientific director, said Guanarito is an emerging disease that has caused deadly outbreaks in Venezuela.

The federal government prioritizes it for research because it has the potential to be used a weapon by terrorists.

On Tuesday, an investigator discovered that only four out of five vials were stored of the virus in the grid system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was notified immediately.

Wrongdoing unlikely

Lab officials searched but have not been able to locate the other vial.

UTMB said that there was no breach in the facility's security and no indication that any wrongdoing was involved, according to the statement. Weaver said it was possible a vial could have stuck to a figure or a glove and fallen to the floor of the laboratory.

"The only way it could pose a risk is if it were stolen and that's unlikely," Weaver said.

This marks the first time that any vial containing a select agent has been unaccounted for at UTMB, officials said.

"We don't think anything that happened this past week endangers the community," Weaver said. "We think this is an error that any one facility is inevitable and we are going to improve to prevent this in the future."

Officials suspect that the virus was likely destroyed during the normal laboratory decontamination and cleaning process, but the investigation is ongoing.

Venezuelan disease

Weaver said those trusted to use the laboratory go through a rigorous security screening and training program. He said the lab is reviewing the procedures for maintaining inventory records and hope to implement a new system to help eliminate human error from the process, which would use electronically encoded system to automatically check inventory based on the vials' labels.

Guanarito is native only to Venezuela and can cause hemorrhagic fever. The virus is not known to be transmitted person-to-person and poses no public health risk, according to officials. In the limited area of Venezuela where the virus is found, it is transmitted only by rodents native to the area and is not believe to be capable of surviving naturally in rodents in the United States.

Lab opened in 2009

Weaver said Guanarito is probably largely unknown to people in the U.S. and elsewhere, and the federal government does not believe it's one of the most likely viruses sought after by terrorists.

The Galveston National Laboratory has been active since 2009 and the researchers work to control infectious diseases to provide a resource to develop therapies, vaccines and diagnostic tests for naturally occurring emerging diseases as well as microbes that might be employed by terrorists, according to its website.