Deadly Virus Missing From Texas Weapons Lab

 Missing virus vial raises concerns at UTMB facility Highly magnified transmission electron of Lassa virus virions, member of the viru...

Lassa virus
 Missing virus vial raises concerns at UTMB facility

Highly magnified transmission electron of Lassa virus virions, member of the virus family Arenaviridae, same as the Guanarito (GTOV) arenavirus.

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.


 Hemorrhagic Fever Viruses (VHF)

Unless otherwise noted, all information presented in this article is derived from Borio L, Inglesby T, Peters CJ, et al., for the Working Group on Civilian Biodefense. Hemorrhagic fever viruses as biological weapons: medical and public health management. JAMA. 2002;287(18):2391-2405.

Electron micrograph of Ebola virus

The hemorrhagic fever viruses (HFVs) are a diverse group of organisms that are all capable of causing clinical disease associated with fever and bleeding disorder, classically referred to as viral hemorrhagic fever (VHF). These organisms can be divided into 4 distinct families of viruses.

1.Filoviridae: Ebola and Marburg viruses;

2.Arenaviridae: Lassa fever virus and a group of viruses referred to as the New World arenaviruses (eg, Junin, Machupo, Guanarito, and Sabia viruses);

3.Bunyaviridae: Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever virus, Rift Valley fever virus, and a group of viruses known as the “agents of hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome” (eg, Hantaan, Dobrava-Belgrade, Seoul, and Puumala viruses); and

4.Flaviviridae: dengue, yellow fever, Omsk hemorrhagic fever, and Kyasanur Forest disease viruses.

In nature, HFVs are transmitted to humans from animal reservoirs either directly or via arthropod vectors. Since the first case of Marburg was reported in 1967, there have been at least 20-25 human outbreaks of VHF related to Ebola or Marburg viruses, mostly occurring in Africa. None of the HF viruses occurs naturally in the United States. Risk factors for VHF include: travel to geographic areas where these viruses are endemic (eg, areas of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America); handling of carcasses of infected animals; close contact with infected animals or people; and/or a bite from an arthropod carrying an HFV.

HFVs as Biological Weapons

Female Aedes aegypti mosquito
Some HFVs are considered to be a significant threat for use as biological weapons due to their potential for causing widespread illness and death. Because of their infectious properties, associated high rates of morbidity and mortality, and ease of person-to-person spread, Ebola, Marburg, Junin, Rift Valley fever, and yellow fever viruses have been deemed to pose a particularly serious threat, and in 1999 the HFVs were classified as category A bioweapons agents by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Several HFVs were reportedly developed as aerosol weapons in the past by some countries. An attack using an HFV as a biological weapon could affect both human and animal populations. Rift Valley fever virus, for example, which is usually transmitted by mosquitoes, can infect livestock, which, in turn, can infect more mosquitoes, widening the scope of an outbreak.

In the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasure Enterprise (PHEMCE) Implementation Plan, published in April 2007, Ebola, Marburg, and Junin viruses are specified as top priority threats for medical countermeasure development.

Signs and Symptoms

Following an aerosol dissemination of any of the HFVs of concern, cases would likely appear within 2 to 21 days after exposure, depending on the specific virus involved. Patients would present with fever, rash, body aches, headaches, and fatigue; internal and external bleeding could occur later.

Diagnosis of VHF is based on clinical presentation of symptoms and confirmed by laboratory testing. This can be challenging because numerous symptoms might be present. There are no rapid clinical diagnostic tests available.

The mechanisms and symptoms for each disease are slightly different, but infection with any of these viruses may lead to thrombocytopenia (a low number of platelets in the blood) and coagulation abnormalities that may lead to prolonged bleeding. Because these illnesses are not endemic to the U.S., the diagnosis of any case of VHF in a person without travel and exposure risk factors (mentioned above) would be cause for suspicion of bioterrorism. Suspected cases of viral hemorrhagic fever should be reported immediately to a local or state health department.


Most of what is known about the transmission of the HFVs is derived from naturally occurring outbreaks.

Some HFVs, such as Rift Valley fever and the Flaviviridae viruses, are not transmissible from person to person, while Ebola, Marburg, Lassa fever, New World Arenaviruses, and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever viruses are transmissible among humans. While little is known about the routes of transmission for HFVs, it appears that direct contact with an infected person is associated with the highest risk of morbidity and mortality. Airborne transmission of the viruses is rare but has not been ruled out.

All of these viruses, including Rift Valley fever and Flaviviridae, may be transmitted to laboratory personnel by way of aerosolization generated during specimen processing. For that reason, any research done on these viruses must be conducted in high containment (BSL-4) laboratories.

An outbreak of Ebola occurred in November 2007 in Uganda’s Bundibugyo district. This particular outbreak was contained after approximately 6 weeks of efforts that included education of the public, implementation of barrier precautions in isolation clinics, and restrictions of inter-district travel and commerce. Containment was dependent on infected individuals seeking attention and family members maintaining distance from isolation centers. Social gatherings, traditional burial practices, and other activities involving close human contact were also limited to help limit the spread of the virus.



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