A virus that authorities worry could easily be weaponized as an aerosol went missing last week from a medical research facility in south Texas, an official at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston said Saturday.
About a quarter of a teaspoon of frozen viral material went missing last Wednesday, UTMB President David L. Callender explained in prepared text. The virus is an exotic strain from south America called Guanarito, which can cause a life-threatening condition that includes fever, convulsions and hemmhoraging.
The disease is usually spread to humans through rodent feces or urine, and a 2008 study published in the journal Virology found that it killed 23.1 percent of its 618 Venezuelan hosts between Sept. 1989 and Dec. 2006. It is not likely capable of spreading from human to human.
Nevertheless, the Centers for Disease Control considers Guanarito virus to be a Biosafety Level 4 risk, the most elevated level due to its potential to be weaponized by terrorists as an aerosol, and labs that store the material are held to rigorous safety standards.
“This is the first time that any vial containing a select agent has been unaccounted for at UTMB,” Callender’s statement explained. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was notified 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.”
“The only way it could pose a risk is if it were stolen and that’s unlikely,” UTMB scientific director Scott Weaver told The Houston Chronicle. “We don’t think anything that happened this past week endangers the community. We think this is an error that any one facility is inevitable and we are going to improve to prevent this in the future.”
Callender added that facility staff suspects the vial of Guanarito was destroyed, but that cannot be confirmed.