Missing Vial of Dangerous Virus Highlights Security Problems at U.S. Labs

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 25 2013 5:42 PM

Missing Vial of Dangerous Virus Highlights Security Problems at U.S. Labs

613px-Galveston_National_Laboratory_at_UTMB
Galveston National Laboratory at UMBC

Photo © N. Saum via Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s start with the good news: The vial of Guanarito, a rare disease found only in Venezuelan rodents, that was reported missing from a Texas lab on Wednesday is probably nothing to worry about. First of all, there’s no evidence that Guanarito can be transmitted from person to person—only from rodent to person (though when that happens, primarily to “male agricultural workers,” it isn’t pleasant). Nor does it appear that the vial was spirited away by an evildoer—more likely, it was destroyed after accidentally falling to the floor, Galveston National Laboratory scientific director Scott Weaver tells the Houston Chronicle. Galveston National Laboratory is housed at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Reports the Chronicle:

“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."
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It isn't comforting to think it’s “inevitable” that dangerous infections could go missing “at any one facility.” But a report released today by the Government Accountability Office jibes with Weaver’s assessment. In a follow-up to a similar 2009 study, the GAO investigated the safety procedures of high-containment laboratories and “found a continued lack of national standards for the design, construction, commissioning, and operation of high-containment laboratories.” Because of the absence of standards, the report continues, “each laboratory can be designed, constructed, and maintained according to local requirements. This will make it difficult to be able to assess and guarantee safety.”

It cites the example of a power outage at the CDC that was caused by construction workers at a nearby site accidentally cutting a cable. (Comforting, isn’t it?) “This incident highlighted the risks inherent in relying on local building codes to ensure the safety of high-containment laboratories, as there are no building codes and testing procedures specifically for those laboratories,” says the GAO report. Another problem: Labs are frequently working on similar projects—and duplicating efforts increases the potential for dangerous mistakes. 

Basically, “the labs are a hot mess,” Kelsey D. Atherton writes for Popular Science. But they don’t have to be, he thinks: “With simple federal action, like establishing standards for research labs and coordinating the nation's biodefense research strategy, these problems should be perfectly mitigated before any real problems occur.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

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