(ATLANTA) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has referred to the FBI the case of the laboratory where one of five vials of a deadly Venezuelan virus went missing, an official from the CDC told ABC News.
“CDC reported the incident to the FBI and we understand that the FBI will initiate an investigation concerning the reported incident,” Dr. Rob Weyant, director of the CDC’s Division of Select Agents and Toxins, told ABC News in an email. “Since the investigation is just underway, the agency will not comment further regarding details of this incident.”
The FBI could not immediately confirm it was investigating the incident at the Galveston National Laboratory.
A lab spokesman said he did not think the FBI was investigating, but rather that the FBI was monitoring the lab’s ongoing investigation.
The CDC can make a referral to the FBI if it finds “possible violations involving criminal negligence or a suspicious activity or person to the FBI for further investigation,” according to 2007 congressional testimony from Dr. Richard Besser, who directed the CDC’s Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response at the time. He is now ABC News’ chief health and medical editor.
The biolab realized the vial went missing on March 21 because it was preparing for its annual CDC inspection for the week of March 25, Weyant said. Prior to the inspection, the CDC visited in January 2012.
The last time the vial was used was November 2012, University of Texas Medical Branch spokesman Raul Reyes told ABC News. The University of Texas Medical Branch owns the $174 million biolab, which was designed with the strictest security measures to hold the deadliest viruses in the country.
Only one scientist worked with the virus, and Reyes said the lab suspects that scientist accidentally threw the vial away in November.
“We have determined, and the CDC has agreed, that this never was a public health risk,” Reyes told ABC News, adding that people who accessed the lab underwent intense background checks and had to go through many layers of security each day.
“If a bad person were intent on weaponizing this type of virus,” Reyes said, “it would be much simpler to fly down to Venezuela, go into the field and collect a specimen.”
Violation of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 can result in up to five years imprisonment and up to a $250,000 penalty for an individual or up to $500,000 for a group, Weyant said.
“As of March 26, 2013, CDC has referred 18 entities to the HHS inspector general for failure to comply with the select agent regulations resulting in over $2 million in monetary penalties,” Weyant said.
Like Ebola, the missing Guanarito virus causes hemorrhagic fever, which involves “bleeding under the skin, in internal organs or from body orifices like the mouth, eyes, or ears,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is clearly an incident that is very discomforting and embarrassing to the University of Texas Medical Center and their national biosecurity lab that they have there,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. “You can be sure there are a lot of sweating people down the chain at that institution.”
Fortunately, losing a vial of Guanarito is not as threatening as losing a vial of anthrax, said Schaffner, a former president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. The virus could theoretically spread between humans, but it usually only spreads between rodents in Venezuela.
Researchers don’t believe the virus can survive in rodents in the U.S., according to a statement from David Callender, president of the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Jackie Wattles, CNN