This story will probably remind people of the film Outbreak, especially with its connection to a virus that produces a deadly hemorrhagic fever. I’m reminded more of the epic Stephen King novel The Stand, with its first third dedicated to the eradication of 99% of the human race thanks to a government-lab fumbling of a superflu virus. Let’s hope that this story ends better than either of those two fictional cautionary tales:
The Galveston National Laboratory lost one of five vials containing a deadly Venezuelan virus, according to the University of Texas Medical Branch, which owns the $174 million facility designed with the strictest security measures to hold the deadliest viruses in the country.
Like Ebola, the missing Guanarito virus causes hemorrhagic fever, an illness named for “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.”
Oddly, the statistics in this report sound better than one might expect, given the scope of the programs involved. Across more than 1400 laboratories operating in Level 3 or Level 4 environments, only 11 people inside the labs got sick all of last year, and only one vial lost previous to this. Given the number of transactions that must take place with this many facilities and personnel, that sounds like a pretty tight operation, at least on a statistical basis. People will make mistakes, which is why these kind of critical and dangerous operations usually have several levels of redundancy.
Usually, anyway. Locking the doors might be a pretty good first level, though:
Oh, by the way, UTMB president David Callender says that this wasn’t a security breach. That surely will make us all feel better.