WASHINGTON, March 26 (RIA Novosti) - A small vial with a rare but potentially deadly virus called Guanarito that could be used in a bioterror attack is missing from a maximum-security University of Texas research laboratory, and officials there are scrambling to explain what could have happened to it.
"There's really no possibility of anything leaving the lab in a viable form unless it is taken out intentionally," said Scott Weaver, scientific director of the Galveston National Laboratory, according to USA Today.
"It's an obscure virus. Even among the scientific community, a lot of people haven't heard of this virus," he added. "It just doesn't seem like the virus anybody would want to steal."
The vial – which contains less than a quarter of a teaspoon of the virus – was found to be missing from a locked freezer during a routine, internal inspection of the lab late last week.
The facility, owned by the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) houses some of the deadliest viruses in the country including ebola, anthrax and plague, and has strict security measures.
Since the virus can be inhaled and there is no known treatment or vaccine, scientists have to wear protective gear that resembles space suits and have a decontamination shower after leaving the lab, Weaver said.
Galveston and other research labs use bioterror agents to develop vaccines and treatments.
The Guanarito virus is native to Venezuela and is transmitted by rodents. It causes internal bleeding and organ damage that is fatal for up to 30 percent of the people who contract it.
People have become infected with the virus by breathing dusty soil particles contaminated by rodent droppings, according to USA Today, and about one-third of those sickened will die from hemorrhagic fever.
"This is clearly an incident that is very discomforting and embarrassing to the University of Texas Medical Center and their national biosecurity lab that they have there," said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in an interview with ABC News.
"You can be sure there are a lot of sweating people down the chain at that institution,” he said.
Researchers believe the vial was destroyed “during normal laboratory sterilization practices,” according to a statement from UTMB President David Callender.
The statement also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was notified immediately after the vial was discovered missing.
There were no indications of security malfunctions or unusual access to the lab since the last inventory in November, when the vial was present, according to USA Today.