Thousand of vials of the contagious respiratory disease SARS go missing from its high-security laboratory in France
More than 2,300 tubes containing samples of the potentially deadly SARS virus have gone “missing” from a high-security laboratory at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
The research body insists there is no cause for alarm as the samples have “no infectious potential”, but it has filed a complaint against “persons unknown” in an attempt to resolve the mysterious disappearance.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is a contagious respiratory illness that first appeared in China in November 2002, when it killed 775 people and infected around 8,000. There has been no known transmission of SARS anywhere in the world since 2004.
During a recent inventory researchers at the Pasteur Institute, which was among the first to isolate HIV in the 1980s, discovered they had lost some 2,349 vials containing samples of the SARS virus.
Unable to locate the samples, the body called in France’s drug and health safety agency, to help with the search.
Inspectors from the Agence nationals de sécurité du medicament et des products de santé conducted a four-days “in depth” investigation from April 4th-12th but have so far been unable to resolve the mystery.
Experts said the risk of infection from the missing vials was “nil” as they only contained harmless, incomplete parts of the virus, even if these come into contact with humans or are inhaled.
But Christian Bréchot, director general of the institute, said their disappearance was “unacceptable and incredible” and has filed a legal complaint.
The vials were kept in 29 boxes in a refrigerator in a high-security laboratory known as P3 in which highly dangerous and infectious viruses are stored.
During an inventory in January all the boxes were found to be missing.
“We looked for the boxes everywhere,” Mr Bréchot told Le Monde. “We went through the lists of all the people who have worked here for the past year and a half, including interns. We analyzed their profiles to check there was no conflict of interest,” he said.
He estimated the chances that the virus had been stolen for malevolent purposes as “highly unlikely”, because only a handful of staff are authorized to enter the P3 laboratory and the most dangerous tubes are cryptically labeled so as to be unintelligible to outsiders.
Anyone leaving the laboratory has to pass through a disinfection zone, which would have killed off any virus.
Mr Bréchot said one possible explanation could be that all 2,349 tubes were “inadvertently destroyed” while being transferred to another refrigerator in 2012 when the one they were originally in malfunctioned.
But he said the research institute “must envisage all possibilities”.
The French medical safety body, ANSM, is due to release a report identifying any safety lapses and making recommendations to ensure such a worrying disappearance never happens again.