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UTMB official says it's "impossible" still-missing deadly virus escaped from Galveston lab

Bacteria on the loose
UTMB says its missing vial of the deadly Guanarito virus was likely destroyed during routine decontamination processes. Illustration by Jan-Pieter Zuiderveen
University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, John Sealy Hospital
UTMB released a statement about the missing virus as part of its community transparency policy.
Guanarito virus
The Guanarito virus causes everything from high fevers to membranous bleeding among adults living in specific areas of Venezuela.
Bacteria on the loose
University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, John Sealy Hospital
Guanarito virus

A missing batch of the ​Guanarito virus made national headlines last week after the University of Texas Medical Branch reported that a vial containing the hazardous agent was unaccounted for during a routine inspection of its federally-sanctioned Galveston National Laboratory.

While UTMB president David Callender assured in a statement there was nothing to fear, media outlets from the USA Today to Vanity Fair highlighted mounting security concerns about potential bio-terror materials like the Guanarito virus, which is known to cause deadly fevers in its native Venezuela.

"There are so many security measures in place that, from our perspective, there's nothing to report," said UTMB media relations director Raul Reyes.

CultureMap spoke with a university representative on Monday to check on the status of the still-missing vial.

"There are so many security measures in place that, from our perspective, there's nothing to report," said UTMB media relations director Raul Reyes.

Lab officials, he explained, suspect that the Guanarito vial stuck to the gloves of a worker and dropped to the floor — a common laboratory mishap. Though still unconfirmed as investigations continues, such an accident would've been kept in check by regular sterilization processes.

He also noted that vials are stored in a freezer at minus 80 degrees Celsius and that all the technicians wear biohazard suits designed for the most hazardous of environments. When asked about the chances of a virus escaping such conditions, he curtly responded, "It's impossible . . . There's no way."

This is the first time the Galveston lab has lost track of a vial since it opened in 2008 — a good track record according to Reyes, who said that an average of 13 similar incidents are reported across the nation annually.

"There's no requirement that says labs have to report incidents like this," he said. "But, when we opened we made a promise to the Galveston community that we'd be as transparent as possible. Not all labs do that."

So far, there have been no signs of a security breach at the lab. Reyes stressed that if someone wanted to get a hold of the Guanarito virus, it would be far easier to go to Venezuela where its found in nature than to break into a high-security research laboratory in the United States.

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