Deadly Virus Vial Lost: Fatal Guanarito Fever Goes Missing From Texas Lab; CDC Notified [REPORT]

By iScienceTimes Staff Reporter on March 25, 2013 7:40 PM EDT

"Deadly virus vial goes missing" is one of the more terrifying headlines you could see. And there it is. A lab in Texas has lost a vial containing a potentially deadly fever, and it has now been missing for almost a week. The disease, known as the Guanarito virus, is not widely known outside of scientific circles - and anti-terrorist circles.  The U.S. government pays close attention to the virus, which has potential for weaponization and use by terrorists. That's what makes the vial's disappearance all the more startling and problematic.

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The University of Texas Medical Branch owns the lab responsible for losing the virus. (Image: UTMB)
The University of Texas Medical Branch owns the lab responsible for losing the virus. (Image: UTMB)

The deadly virus vial was lost from a research facility at the University of Texas Medical Branch, or UTMB, in Galveston, Texas. According to the Houston Chronicle, the vial contained around a quarter of a teaspoon of the Guanarito virus, and was one of five such vials stored at the facility. But during last week's inspection of the lab (a regular, routine occurrence), UTMB lab workers discovered that one of the vials had been misplaced from the biohazard freezer in which it had been stored. It has yet to be found.

The Guanarito virus found in the lost deadly virus vial is, according to university officials, a form of hemorrhagic fever native to Venezuela and transmitted to humans through rats. According to a report in the medical journal "Clinical Infectious Diseases," this form of Venezuelan hemorrhagic fever has a fatality rate of 33.3%, "despite hospitalization and vigorous supportive care" of patients. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, convulsions, and other equally unpleasant symptoms, like death.

The lost deadly virus vial is extremely dangerous, but there are some saving graces: according to Slate, the Guanarito virus does not spread from person-to-person, only from Venezuelan rat-to-person (apparently, most non-Venezuelan rats can't even carry the disease). So, despite its high fatality rate, few people contract the disease in the first place.

The deadly virus vial was stored at a lab with some of the absolute strictest security measures of any lab in the country, according to ABC News. That's because it works with a lot of similarly dangerous viruses, many of them much more infectious and virulent than Venezuelan hemorrhagic fever. The university immediately notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the lost virus and began an investigation into the disappearance.

Preliminary reports suggest that the deadly virus vial was not stolen - it was accidentally destroyed while the lab was being cleaned. The lab has found absolutely no evidence of a break-in, theft, or other failure of lab security. The loss came about due to a failure of procedure, not because of external troublemakers. Presumably, UTMB has a safe and sterile cleaning process, since it deals with so many other dangerous viruses. That would mean the deadly virus vial was destroyed without doing any harm, even though it wasn't supposed to be. Regardless, this is a major failure of procedure for the university and will inevitably force them to reconsider the security measures they have implemented, a process they have already begun.

A deadly virus vial going missing is never, ever good news, but its accidental destruction is the best that bad news it could be, considering the circumstances.

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