Missing virus 'probably' lost

Vial Guanarito reported missing from UTMB

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

GALVESTON, Texas - Officials at Galveston's National Laboratory on the University of Texas Medical Branch campus tell Local 2 Investigates the missing vial of Guanarito virus is probably lost.

However, officials with the lab said cleaning and disinfecting procedures guarantee there is no threat to the public from this potentially deadly virus.

Officials with the lab said a single vial of the South American virus may have been missing since last November, the last time it was handled.

Officials with the lab said they discovered the vial was missing last week.

"We still believe there was no risk to the community from this virus or that it was stolen," said Scott Weaver, PhD, Scientific Director for the Galveston National Laboratory.

Weaver said investigators believe the small vial simply fell out of the box it was stored in with several other vials while being handled by a researcher. Weaver said in the part of the lab where this virus is stored researchers wear double thick latex gloves and a "space suit" that is sealed and has it's own air supply. Weaver said the vials are kept at a temperature of 80 degrees below zero which can make them "sticky."

"When you're working with thick gloves (one vial) may stick to a different finger than you're using to pull one out," said Weaver. "One of them may get knocked out and fall on the floor."

Weaver said the helmet worn by researchers limits field of view and the recirculating air inside the suit dampens a person's ability to hear. Weaver said he believes this is why the researcher never noticed the vial fell out of the box.

Weaver said if the vial was picked up during regular cleaning of the lab it would have been disinfected and destroyed with any other debris.

"...immediately it goes into an autoclave and then into an incinerator," said Weaver.

Weaver said the lab is in the process of creating an electronic scanning system to record and verify all samples handled in the lab. Weaver said that system should be in place by the end of the year and will prevent future errors like this one.

"The scanner would immediately record the number of vials taken out of the freezer and how many are put back in so someone would instantly know if a vial is missing," said Weaver.

Galveston's lab notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the missing vial. The lab also notified the public about the missing vial, something that is not required under federal regulations.

"This is part of the promise we made to the community when this lab was built," said Weaver. "We will always be open and transparent."

This missing vial from Galveston comes as federal officials are calling for tougher government oversight of all labs across the country handling these types of agents.

A USDA Inspector general audit from November of 2012 cited inspectors did not always catch safety and security violations at bio-medical labs which "increased the risk select agents could be accessed by unauthorized personnel and potentially misused."

A Government Accountability Office report released Monday also points out, "there are still no national standards for designing, constructing, commissioning, maintaining and operating high-containment laboratories."

Neither report mentioned any issues at the lab in Galveston.

Researchers said the Guanarito virus is found only in certain portions of Venezuela and is spread by two types of rodents. There is no known vaccine or cure for this virus.

Researchers at the lab in Galveston are working to develop a cure or a vaccine for this potentially deadly virus.

If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477). Copyright 2013 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.