Winnipeg researcher charged with smuggling Ebola material into U.S.
A former researcher at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg is facing charges in the United States after allegedly trying to smuggle genetic material from the Ebola virus across the Manitoba-North Dakota border.
U.S. authorities allege Konan Michel Yao had 22 vials of the substance in the trunk of his car when he tried to cross the border on May 5. He is charged with smuggling merchandise, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 US.
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.
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 Jan. 21, his last day at the lab, he said he stole 22 vials, which he described as research vectors, according to the affidavit.
Yao told officers he was taking the vials to his new job with the National Institutes of Health at the Biodefense Research Laboratory in Bethesda, Md., because he didn't want to start from scratch in his research.
Dr. Frank Plummer, the scientific director of the Winnipeg lab, said the genetic material taken was not the full Ebola virus and does not pose a risk to the public.
Plummer said theft has never happened at the lab before. Researchers are reminded they cannot take any lab property without permission, and they sign documents asserting that they know the rules, he said.
The lab is now reviewing its biosecurity protocol.
No public health risk, Canadian health agency says
Lynn Jordheim, the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, said Yao was not carrying the active viruses. Still, Jordheim said, the allegations against Yao are serious.
"You take it seriously when something like this happens, but this is not the scenario you fear where somebody would be bringing a biological agent across," Jordheim said.
A spokesman with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's Minnesota office told CBC News on Wednesday that the agency was initially called in to investigate and monitor a terrorist threat, but the threat was assessed and ruled out.
The FBI said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be handling the investigation.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said there was never a public health risk, and insisted Yao did not have access to the highest-level pathogens and only worked with non-infectious material.
A spokesperson for the agency confirmed that the accused was a researcher who hadn't worked at the National Microbiology Lab since January.
Yao was born in the Ivory Coast. He studied at Laval University in Quebec and was briefly affiliated with the plant sciences department at the University of Manitoba.
A former supervisor described him as "a normal researcher."