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.
Border agents said they conducted a routine search of his vehicle and found 22 vials in a latex glove wrapped in aluminum foil, inside the trunk.
“It was certainly taken seriously,” said Lynn Jordheim, the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case. “... But it’s been determined that (the materials) are not a hazardous substance.”
Yao, who had been working at the Winnipeg lab on a fellowship, told border officials he had been working on vaccines for Ebola and HIV, according to court documents.
He was scheduled to start a new job with the U.S. National Institutes of Health at the Biodefense Research Laboratory in Bethesda, Maryland. According to court documents he told officers he was taking the vials to help him get a head start at his new job.
Yao is charged informally on a complaint of attempted smuggling, which is based on his failure to disclose what he was taking across the border, not the type of materials he had, Jordheim said.
The next step is for a U.S. grand jury to consider the evidence to decide whether to lay formal charges. He will remain in custody pending the grand jury decision.
The Canadian laboratory has also notified Winnipeg police.
Lab officials don’t search employees or former employees when they leave, Plummer said.
“I don’t think that would be appropriate. At some point you have to rely on trust of the individuals and the integrity of the individuals that work in the building.”
The missing materials weren’t noticed for several months because the lab doesn’t do regular inventories of non-infectious materials. Access to pathogens is more strictly controlled, Plummer said.
Reporting by Rod Nickel; editing by Rob Wilson