Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ebola gene theft a shocker

Sparks serious questions about security at city's microbiology lab

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WINNIPEG – For nearly four months, scientists at Winnipeg's National Microbiology Lab had no idea that a former researcher walked out of the strictly controlled federal facility with 22 vials of stolen biological material -- including vials that contained genes of the lethal Ebola virus.

The theft has sparked controversy and serious questions about security protocols at a lab that contains some of the world's deadliest pathogens.

Dr. Frank Plummer, the lab's scientific director, said no one knew the vials were missing until May 5 when the RCMP alerted them there had been a theft -- the same day FBI special agents arrested the former Winnipeg researcher as he tried to cross the Manitoba-North Dakota border en route to his new job at a U.S. bio-defence facility in Maryland.

Court documents allege U.S. border officials discovered the stolen vials in the researcher's car trunk, hidden inside a glove wrapped in aluminum foil. The affidavit alleges the researcher said he stole the vials on his last day of work at the federal lab at the end of January so he wouldn't have to start his research again.

FBI special agent E.K. Wilson said federal officials were initially called in to investigate whether the man smuggled the vials for bioterrorism. Documents allege the researcher said he knew he needed special clearance to transport the materials into the U.S., but did not have a permit.

The man worked in the National Microbiology Lab's special pathogens area on a vaccine for the Ebola virus and HIV.

Konan Michel Yao, 42, faces U.S. criminal charges for smuggling and is currently in the custody of a U.S. marshal. Plummer said the individual passed security checks and signed a form that declared he did not steal anything from the lab. He said the stolen material was not infectious and didn't pose any risk to the health of Canadian or American citizens.

The lab will review its security protocols in the wake of the controversy, but Plummer said they follow the same security protocols as their counterparts in the U.S. and elsewhere. He said the matter has been turned over to Winnipeg police, who may decide to also lay charges against the individual.

"We don't search people when they leave the building," Plummer said, during a teleconference from Ottawa. "I don't think that would be appropriate."

"This individual had secret security clearance and we relied on his integrity."

Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin said people who live near a facility that contains infectious viruses and disease deserve a clear, transparent explanation on how someone can walk out the door with vials of anything. Martin said the incident is cause for grave concern that no one escorted the researcher out on his last day to check whether he took anything he wasn't supposed to.

"I think it's an indication of a cavalier approach to security of the world's deadliest pathogens," Martin said, during an interview from his Ottawa office. "Whatever the reason, that guy shouldn't have been able to walk out with more than his gym clothes and personal effects."

Plummer said the unusual incident could never happen with viruses contained in Level 3 and 4 labs, where the most virulent, deadly diseases are kept. The researcher didn't have access to those labs, Plummer said, and the lab does routine inventory of vials and who is coming in and out of the Level 3 and 4 areas.

Plummer said the area where the man worked doesn't contain any infectious agents. The lab does not take inventory of the vials in these labs, he said, saying it would be nearly impossible to track the thousands of vials.

The 22 stolen vials are currently being held at the Centers for Disease Control lab in Atlanta, where scientists confirmed the biological materials are not infectious. Although some vials contained Ebola genes, Plummer said the researcher could have only used the material to make a vaccine.

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

 

Security scandals

WITH guards, screening and more than 6,700 sensors to pre­vent intruders from getting in, the two security scandals at the federal lab both centre around stuff getting out: Earlier this year, U.S. border officials discovered 22 vials of stolen biological material -- in­cluding vials that contained genes of the lethal Ebola virus -- in a former researcher's car trunk, hidden inside a glove wrapped in aluminum foil. In an affidavit, the researcher said he stole the vials on his last day of work at the federal lab at the end of January, so he wouldn't have to start his research again.

In 1999, the federal lab was criticized after it failed to report an incident in which waste water was accidentally flushed into city sewers before being properly treated. Although officials at the federal laboratory said the leak posed no threat to the public, the lab failed to report the occurrence to city and provincial officials for 24 hours. Area residents waited two weeks before being told of the incident. A month after that incident, lab officials promised to strike a community committee to keep the public better informed of any future mishaps.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2009 A4

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