Winnipeg researcher charged with smuggling Ebola material into US

A Canadian scientist has been arrested on charges of trying to smuggle 22 vials of genetic material from the Ebola virus into the United States. The vials were stolen from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Konan Michel Yao,42, was on route to his new job with the National Institutes of Health at the Biodefense Research Laboratory in Bethesda, Maryland, when the border patrol stopped him. It is alleged that he was carrying the vials wrapped in aluminum foil, stuffed inside a glove and then packaged in a plastic bag inside his car’s trunk when he was taken into custody.

Yao reportedly admitted he stole the vials on Jan. 24, his last day of work at the Winnipeg-based lab. Testing of the vials showed that they were not hazardous.

At no time were the citizens of Canada at risk from the stolen vials Dr. Frank Plummer, the scientific director general of the lab, said. The vials contained “basic biological materials including the Ebola gene for vaccine development,” reports indicate.

The Winnipeg lab deals with infectious diseases and was in the news after Swine Flu samples from the Mexican outbreak were sent there for the first identifications.

According to authorities, Yao was never in contact with Level 3 and Level 4 pathogens. He had access to a Level 2 lab which carries samples that are often available at hospitals and universities.

Yao worked at the lab in a fellowship position. He was taking the vials, according to reports, in order to have a head start at his new position at the Bethesda lab. He reportedly said he didn’t want to start over with his research.

Officials did not notice the samples were missing for several months because regular inventories of non-infectious materials are not routine.

The National Terror Alert reports:

“This turned out not to be a terrorism-related case,” he said by telephone from North Dakota. “It appears to be exactly as he Yao said. However, he still faces possible charges for smuggling the vials into the United States.”

Yao remains in U.S. custody. He has waived his right to bail and preliminary hearings. He could face a possible grand jury indictment for smuggling.

A Public Health Agency of Canada spokeswoman is quoted by National Terror Alert:

“was working on vaccines for the Ebola virus and HIV, among other things. But he only had access to harmless and non-infectious materials, similar to what you’d find in a hospital or university lab. He did not have access to dangerous materials.”

The Globe and Mail reports that Yao would have likely been given access to the vials had he requested it prior to taking them:

“One of the ironies here is that if this individual had, through appropriate channels, made a request for these materials, it’s quite likely he would have got access to them,” Dr. Plummer said.

Yao was born in the Ivory Coast. He studied at Laval University in Quebec.

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