Manitoba

Security procedures under review at National Microbiology Lab

Health officials are reviewing security at Winnipeg's National Microbiology Lab after a former researcher was caught allegedly trying to smuggle biological material into the United States.

Former researcher charged in U.S. with smuggling material from Winnipeg lab

Health officials are reviewing security at Winnipeg's National Microbiology Lab after a former researcher was caught allegedly trying to smuggle biological material into the United States.

U.S. authorities allege Konan Michel Yao had 22 vials in the trunk of his car when he tried to cross the Manitoba-North Dakota border on May 5. Officials say the vials contained genetic material from the Ebola virus but that it was not infectious.

'Obviously, our focus is on the protection of the public, but we don't do body searches on people leaving the building.'—Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer

In his affidavit, the 42-year-old researcher said he was hired by the Public Health Agency of Canada to work as a PhD fellow at the Winnipeg facility. Yao told officers he was working on a vaccine for the Ebola virus and HIV.

On his last day at the lab, Jan. 21, he said he stole 22 vials, which he described as research vectors, according to the affidavit.

Yao is in jail in North Dakota and has been charged with smuggling merchandise.

Vials wrapped in foil, stuffed in a glove

U.S. customs officers allegedly found the vials wrapped in aluminum foil inside a glove and packaged in a plastic bag, along with electrical wires.

Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer, said Yao did not have access to the most secure parts of the virology lab. Yao stopped working at the facility in January and never worked with infectious materials.

Yao was working on an Ebola vaccine but didn't work with the ebola virus, which is strictly controlled in the highest levels of the lab, said Dr. Frank Plummer, the scientific director general at the lab.

Butler-Jones said nothing infectious was in the vials but admitted the incident was very unusual.

"Why it was taken, I have no idea, but we'll be looking at our processes more broadly," he said. "Obviously, our focus is on the protection of the public, but we don't do body searches on people leaving the building."

Lab being checked for anything else missing

He said the lab in Winnipeg is checking to see whether anything else is missing.

Health officials in the U.S. are also testing the material in the vials to determine exactly what is in them, he added.

In court documents, Yao said he stole the vials for a new job he was starting at a lab in Bethesda Maryland. He said he didn't want to start over all of the research he had already done.

The maximum penalty in the U.S. for smuggling merchandise across the border is 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 US.

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