Canada lab researcher faces U.S. smuggling charge

Wed May 13, 2009 4:32pm EDT
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By Rod Nickel

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - A scientist at a top-ranked infectious disease laboratory in Canada has been arrested on charges of attempting to smuggle vials of biological materials into the United States, Canadian and U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

The researcher, Konan Michel Yao, is alleged to have taken vials of basic biological materials including the Ebola gene for vaccine development from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Although the materials contained the Ebola gene, the gene is not infectious and its only possible application would be in developing a vaccine, said Dr. Frank Plummer, the scientific director general of the lab.

"At no time was the health of citizens of Canada or the U.S. at risk, because the seized materials are known to be non-infectious," said Plummer.

The lab is Canada's top facility for the identification, control and prevention of infectious diseases, and deals with the most deadly organisms.

Yao never had access to Level 3 and 4 pathogens, which include the Ebola virus, HIV and H1N1 flu virus, Plummer said. He did have access to a Level 2 laboratory, similar to those at hospitals and universities.

Had Yao applied to take the materials, he probably would have received permission, Plummer said.

Yao was arrested by U.S. officials as he attempted to enter the United States at the Pembina, North Dakota, border crossing on May 5, said Mike Milne, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.   Continued...