Plague scare 'unlikely' at UF


Published: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 12:00 a.m.
Warning flags went up Wednesday at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center when 30 vials containing samples of potentially lethal plague were reported missing from a researcher's laboratory.
The FBI reported late in the day that all the samples had been located, but gave few details.
William Properzio, the University of Florida's director of environmental health and safety, said Wednesday that a situation like that at Texas Tech was not likely to occur here.
Citing new federal regulations, Properzio declined to say whether any researcher on the UF campus might be working with the potentially deadly plague virus, or any of the other agents on the government's watch list.
"We have been asked before about what inventories of select agents we had," Properzio said. "It is a federal requirement under the select agent rules that this sort of information not be released."
In the wrong hands, such information "is a shopping list," he added.
"I would hope that it is highly unlikely that something similar could happen here," he said. "We've had no situations that are reportable, and hope the steps we've taken will prevent this."
Properzio noted that tougher new federal regulations required researchers at Texas Tech to report their missing samples of plague virus.
Dr. Thomas Butler, chief of Texas Tech's infectious disease division, was reported to have thought it "prudent" to get law enforcement involved because of current concerns about bioterrorism.
"It's not voluntary. If you lose this type of material, you have to report to the federal agencies that are involved," Properzio said.
Two new laws have put some muscle into regulations affecting material that might potentially be used in an act of bioterrorism - the USA Patriot Act passed in October 2001, and the Public Health and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act in the spring.
Prior to 9-11, Properzio said, the university would have to report to the Centers for Disease Control on select agents only if they were being shipped somewhere. If they were stocked in a laboratory on campus, they didn't have to be reported.
"As part of our laboratory safety program here, even prior to 9-11, we inventoried and reported all we had," he said.
Now it is mandatory that all such materials be inventoried and that they only be used in secure laboratories. Background checks are done by the university on anyone working in the area.
Health officials say 10 to 20 people in the United States contract plague each year. It can be treated with antibiotics, but about one in seven U.S. cases is fatal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Diane Chun can be reached at (352) 374-5041 or chund@gvillesun.com.

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