UMDNJ concedes it lost 2 dead mice infected with plague
Saturday, February 07, 2009
BY TED SHERMAN AND JOSH MARGOLIN
The frozen remains of two lab mice infected with deadly strains of plague were lost at a bioterror research facility at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark -- the same high-security lab where three infected mice went missing four years ago.
The latest incident, which led to an FBI investigation, occurred in December but was never disclosed to the public.
University officials said there was no health threat.
The remains of the dead mice were contained in a red hazardous waste bag being stored in a locked freezer, according to the researchers. But an animal care supervisor could not account for them while preparing to sterilize and incinerate them.
In September 2005, the same lab discovered three live mice infected with plague missing from multiple cages. Officials then said the animals had likely died.
University officials yesterday said they immediately contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FBI and state health officials in December upon learning of the missing remains, but withheld information from the public until The Star-Ledger began asking questions. They subsequently released a report about the matter in a mass e-mailing to the university community, saying they did not want employees, students and professors to read about the incident in the newspaper.
FBI officials confirmed the December incident.
"As a matter of protocol in this type of matter, the FBI was called in to investigate and we determined there was no nexus to terrorism or risk to public health," said Bryan Travers, a spokesman for the FBI office in Newark.
The state Department of Health and Senior Services said it had also been notified of the situation, "and we are very confident that the appropriate authorities are investigating," said spokeswoman Donna Leusner.
University officials defended their decision to keep the matter confidential.
"If this were a public health risk, we couldn't afford to keep it a secret," said Diane Weathers, UMDNJ's senior vice president for university advancement and communications. "Plague sounds like it is Black Death. It would have been irresponsible to raise concerns."
The UMDNJ facility -- the Public Health Research Institute -- is a leading center for research on infectious diseases. It has a Level 3 biocontainment lab that works with diseases that are lethal or can cause serious health problems, including bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, West Nile virus and typhoid fever.
The mice were part an ongoing work in a federally funded biodefense program to find vaccinations that could be effective for the plague, which terrorism experts fear could be used as a biological weapon.
Lab officials said the mice were infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic and other forms of plague -- an infectious disease that has claimed more than 30 million lives through history and even today sparks fear and panic around the world, although with modern antibiotics, plague can be treated if quickly diagnosed.
David Perlin, the director of the Public Health Research Institute, said the discovery that the infected mice carcasses were missing came on Dec. 19, while the remains of hundreds of subject animals were being sterilized and incinerated. He said they believed two bags stuck to each other and were autoclaved together, but said they notified authorities because they had to rule out any possibility of foul play.
An FBI agent was on site later that same day, and the lab staff was interviewed throughout the weekend by the FBI.
According to Perlin, all evidence collected to date indicates that the bag containing the two missing mice was frozen to another bag and both bags were sterilized and incinerated simultaneously.
"I'm confident we run a safe and secure facility. We run a first-rate operation, and we will be out of business fast if people don't believe we have credibility," he said. "We have very strict controls. Safety. Security. Everything. But you're always running the risk of even a very small minor incident, which is what this is."
Richard H. Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist who has been a critic of the government's rapid expansion of bioterrorism labs, said while the likelihood is that someone made an accounting error, it was a potentially embarrassing situation for UMDNJ.
"It is essential where such activities are carried out that security is at the highest levels and records be maintained for a long period of time, if not indefinitely," Ebright said.
UMDNJ said the lab has since changed its protocol to inventory all logged hazardous waste bags prior to sterilization.