Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lab didn't tell police 22 vials stolen

Former researcher in U.S. custody accused of cross-border smuggling

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WINIPEG – No one from Winnipeg's National Microbiology Laboratory bothered to report the theft of 22 vials of biological material to police, despite an international uproar over a former researcher accused of smuggling the substances across the U.S. border.

On Wednesday, scientific director Dr. Frank Plummer confirmed RCMP alerted lab staff about the stolen materials on May 5 -- the same day a former vaccine researcher was arrested by FBI special agents after U.S. Customs discovered the vials stuffed in a glove in the trunk of his car at the Manitoba-North Dakota border crossing.

Some of the vials included genes from the deadly Ebola virus, but local scientists say the material is not infectious.

Konan Michel Yao, 42, faces U.S. criminal charges for smuggling and is currently in the custody of a U.S. marshal.

The vials are considered government property, and Plummer initially said the matter was referred to Winnipeg police.

But on Thursday -- more than a week after the theft came to light -- police said no one from the lab has reported the incident.

"Right now, we're not investigating it," a police spokeswoman said, noting the theft falls within Winnipeg Police Service jurisdiction because it occurred within the city.

Lab officials did not respond to calls from the Free Press on Thursday.

The latest revelation comes one day after senior lab officials admitted they had no idea that 22 vials of biological substances were missing from the high-security facility for close to four months.

Plummer has said the researcher signed a form declaring he did not steal anything from the lab and understood he was not allowed to. The national lab does not conduct searches of staff when they exit the lab and does not routinely take inventory of the thousands of vials containing non-infectious biological substances.

Court documents allege the former researcher stole the vials on his last day of work at the virology lab in January because "he did not want to start his research over from the beginning when he entered into his next fellowship" with the National Institutes of Health at the Biodefense Research Laboratory in Maryland.

Mary Ellen Kennedy, former director of Health Canada's office of biosafety, said the incident raises questions what kind of security protocols the National Microbiology Lab has in place and how they're handled. Although Kennedy said there's a core group of longtime scientists who work at the lab, there are also researchers and PhDs who come in to work on projects for a short period of time.

She said it might be a good idea to screen temporary staff differently to guard against future theft.

"The Americans seem to be pursuing it and it's unclear what we're doing as Canadians. In a very broad sense, I think we're behind the U.S."

Kennedy said Americans developed very strict biosecurity protocols post-9/11 and have agencies and personnel to enforce them that don't exist in Canada.

Dr. Tom Ksiazek, former chief of special pathogens with the Centres for Disease Control in the U.S., said the CDC ensures vials of non-infectious materials are accounted for, but that scientists do not keep as strict controls on them as they do for infectious agents.

Ksiazek said it appears the incident has more to do with intellectual property and ownership of research than it does with security protocols. He said researchers must fill out request forms to transport biological material with them if they are leaving one lab to take a job in another.

Though most facilities are accommodating, Ksiazek said there can be delays, as legal departments in both labs have to clear the transfer and the paperwork. He also said some individuals feel they have a stake in the research, and that it wouldn't be the first time a scientist took a vial of his work with him.

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2009 A5

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