(USA TODAY)-- Officials at a maximum-security research lab in Texas report that a vial of a potential bioterror agent is missing, but they say it's likely that the virus has been destroyed and poses no danger.
The incident, voluntarily disclosed by the Galveston National Laboratory, comes amid growing concerns about security and safety risks at labs researching germs and toxins that could be used as bioterror weapons.
Scott Weaver, the Galveston lab's scientific director, said Monday that a routine check 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. Checks of the lab's security systems show no malfunctions and no unusual entries to the lab or the freezer since a previous inventory recorded the vial in November.
Galveston and other labs experiment with bioterror agents so they can develop vaccines and treatments.
Weaver said the incident, as required by law, was immediately reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said CDC officials agreed with the lab that it is "extremely unlikely" the virus was stolen.
"They did not consider this a public health threat or a potential theft," Weaver said, adding that the lab voluntarily made the incident public because of a long-standing pact to be transparent with the Galveston community
"We certainly wouldn't want to be in a position where anybody in the community felt we were trying to cover anything up," Weaver said.
CDC officials declined to be interviewed. In an e-mail, the CDC said the investigation is ongoing and the FBI has been notified.
The CDC receives about a dozen reports a year of lost bioterror germs and toxins, which the government calls "select agents." The CDC received 88 loss reports from 2004 to 2010, according to an article by agency staff published last year in the journal Applied Biosafety. "The final disposition of [the select agents] described in the 88 loss reports was reconciled in all but one report," the article said.
That one confirmed loss occurred during the shipment of a fungus that can cause a type of pneumonia called Valley Fever. An FBI investigation of the lost fungus package concluded it was "apparently destroyed during processing at a commercial shipping facility," the CDC researchers' article said.
The other loss reports were resolved as being record-keeping errors, samples discarded without documentation of destruction or lost shipments that were later located, the CDC said.
USA TODAY reported Monday that two recent reports by government auditors have raised concern about lax federal inspections of bioterror labs and the potential for increased risks of lab accidents. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce is conducting a bipartisan investigation into bioterror lab safety and security issues.
The virus that was in the vial missing at the Galveston lab occurs naturally in rodents in Venezuela. During harvest time, people have become infected by breathing dusty soil particles contaminated with virus excreted by the rodents, Weaver said. Of those who are sickened, he said, about one-third will 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.
Weaver said 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, where it was later swept up and incinerated with other lab waste.
The frozen vials, which are stored at minus-80 degrees centigrade, "stick to about anything ... especially a gloved hand," he said. The noise of the airflow system inside the scientist's spacesuit - coupled with a limited field of vision - would make it difficult to hear or see the vial drop, Weaver said.
"There's really no possibility of anything leaving the lab in a viable form unless it is taken out intentionally," Weaver said. Even that's difficult, he said, noting that when leaving the lab, a scientist must enter a chemical decontamination shower for five minutes.
Weaver noted that Guanarito is an unlikely target for theft - especially considering that the lab houses other more dangerous germs, such as ebola, anthrax and plague. "It's an obscure virus. Even among the scientific community, a lot of people haven't heard of this virus," he said. "It just doesn't seem like the virus anybody would want to steal."
Inspectors from the CDC were at the Galveston lab Monday for a routine inspection that was scheduled several months ago, Weaver said. He said the lab had no issues with its inventory on its previous inspection, about 12-18 months ago, nor has the lab had any issues with expired security risk assessments of employees.
"Typically our inspections have only found very minor issues, like caulking a seal in a doorway in a shower facility," he said.
Richard Ebright, a biosafety expert at Rutgers university in New Jersey, said he is far less concerned about the Galveston lab incident than he is about the recent reports by government auditors finding that federal inspectors have failed to detect safety and security violations.
"The missing vial is likely to be merely a misinventoried vial," Ebright said. "The incident is not remotely as significant as having inspectors who do not inspect."