- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

LUBBOCK, Texas, Jan. 15 (UPI) — Investigators have accounted for about 35 vials of bubonic plague bacteria reported missing from a research lab at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, the FBI said Wednesday.

"We have accounted for all those missing vials, and we have determined that currently there is no danger to the public safety whatsoever," said Guadalupe Gonzalez, special agent in charge of the Dallas FBI office.

In a news conference, Gonzalez refused to go into detail about what had happened to the vials because he said a criminal investigation was under way. He said there had been no arrests so far.

Dr. David Smith, chancellor of health sciences center, praised the school's security system and the cooperation of authorities in locating the bacteria.

"I'm sorry we had to test the system here today, but we did and I will tell you I would certainly give it an A-plus with everybody pulling together," he said.

Smith said the bacteria were not in a "weaponized" form that could be readily used by terrorists.

Dr. Richard Homan, the dean of the medical school, said it wasn't clear when the samples were first unaccounted for but he learned about it at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and reported it to authorities.

Homan said the cultures are used in research to test the sensitivity of various antibiotics. He said the same type of research is conducted at university labs all across the country.

Homan said the university has security procedures that are followed in handling the vials and there are a total of 180 held in a secured area.

An expert in emergency medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas said the bacteria used at Texas Tech would not be a threat to large numbers of people.

"The terrorist threat would come from a very sophisticated operation that brewed huge amounts of the bacteria and then had a very sophisticated way to deliver it in an aerosol form to a large population," said Dr. Kathleen Delaney, medical director of the Parkland Memorial Hospital emergency room and a UT professor of emergency medicine.

"You could probably take and infect some people with what was taken from a laboratory but the possession of that agent doesn't necessarily confer a huge ability to harm anyone. I'm much more worried about the big operations in Iraq."

Delaney said the research performed at Texas Tech and other universities on antibiotics is very important.

Bubonic plague is an infectious disease of animals and humans caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Humans get plague from being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an infected animal.

In the Middle Ages, millions died from plague in Europe when homes and places of work were inhabited by flea-infested rats. Modern antibiotics are now effective against plague, but if untreated, the disease is likely to cause illness or death.

Outbreaks in humans still occur in rural communities or in cities where flea-infested rodents are present. In the United States, the last urban plague epidemic occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-25 but a few cases are still reported in New Mexico and Arizona.


(Reported by Phil Magers in Dallas)

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