By Philip Ling, Canwest News Service May 13, 2009
Konan Michel Yao is faces U.S. criminal charges for smuggling 22 viles used in Ebola research stolen from Canada's National Microbiology Lab. The viles were stolen in January, but Canada's public health agency didn't know the vials were missing until the Canadian scientist was stopped at the U.S. border last week.Photograph by: Karoly Arvai, ReutersOTTAWA — A Canadian scientist was stopped at the U.S. border last week after authorities found 22 vials used in Ebola research from Canada's National Microbiology Lab in his possession, officials said Wednesday.
The incident has sparked controversy and serious questions about security protocols at the Winnipeg lab that contains some of the world's most deadliest pathogens.
Konan Michel Yao, 42, was apprehended by U.S. officials as he attempted to enter the United States at the Pembina, N.D., border crossing from Manitoba on May 5.
Yao faces U.S. criminal charges for smuggling and is currently in the custody of the U.S. Marshals service.
Yao was carrying unidentified biological materials in vials wrapped in aluminum foil inside a glove, wrapped in a plastic bag in the trunk of his car, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokesman Mike Milne told the Reuters news agency.
Dr. Frank Plummer, scientific director general of the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, said the vials did not contain any infectious pathogens.
"At no time was the health of citizens of Canada or the U.S. at risk, as the seized materials are known to be non-infectious," he said.
FBI special agent E.K. Wilson said federal officials were initially called in to investigate whether the man smuggled the vials for bio-terrorism.
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.
Plummer said Yao was working at the agency's special pathogens laboratory on an Ebola vaccine project when his research term ended in January.
"There was a small amount of genetic material from the Ebola virus in the material that he took off with, but it posed no risk of infection and no risk to the health of the public," he said.
"It's basically genetic material, some of which had an Ebola gene in it. It's just a gene. It's not infectious. The only thing he could've done with it was make an Ebola vaccine."
Yao never had access to Level 3 and 4 pathogens, such as the swine flu virus, HIV and Ebola virus, Plummer said. He had access to a Level 2 laboratory and "only worked with non-infectious materials."
Yao said in an affidavit obtained by Reuters that he took the vials with him when he left the lab at the end of his contract on Jan. 21, to help him get a head start on his research at his new job at a U.S. disease research lab.
Canada's public health agency did not know the vials were missing until it was contacted by the RCMP, which had been alerted by U.S. border services, Plummer said.
The agency doesn't search employees or former employees when they leave, Plummer said, adding that he "is satisfied" that no one else in the lab was aware of Yao's actions.
"The individual was instructed about the rules regarding taking government property, including materials he had been working on as part of his research project, off site," he said. "At some point you have to rely on trust of the individuals and the integrity of the individuals that work in the building."
The laboratory also "does not do rigorous, regular inventory" of Level 1 and 2 non-infectious materials, such as the vials that were allegedly taken, Plummer said. It has no plans to implement such a database.
"We have tens of thousands of these vials in refrigerators and freezers in the laboratory," he said. "We would never try to have an inventory of every little vial in our laboratory. It's absolutely impossible."
The lab will review its security protocols in the wake of the controversy, but Plummer stressed that a similar incident "would not happen to our live pathogens" because the agency has "very strict controls" over Level 3 and 4 pathogens.
He said U.S. counterparts at the Centers for Disease Control have very similar protocols.
The stolen vials are still at the Centers for Disease Control, where they have been tested and shown to be non-infectious.
"This is not a common event. We've never had experienced anything like this before," Plummer said.
Yao is charged informally on a complaint of attempted smuggling, which is based on his failure to disclose what he was taking across the border, not the type of materials he had, U.S. prosecutor Lynn Jordheim said.
The next step is for a U.S. grand jury to consider the evidence to decide whether to lay formal charges. He will remain in custody pending the grand jury decision, Reuters reported.
The matter has also been referred to the Winnipeg Police Service, which has not yet decided whether to lay charges.
With files from the Winnipeg Free Press
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