25 September 2002
CASE OF MISSING (GM) BACTERIA
Subject: WSJ Authorities Probe Case Of Missing Bacteria
Authorities Probe Case Of Missing Bacteria
By GARY FIELDS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- Federal authorities are investigating the disappearance of genetically altered bacteria fatal to pigs that appear to have been stolen from a research laboratory at Michigan State University.
Investigators said that while the bacteria apparently are harmless to humans, they could devastate the pork industry if replicated and released, and they are treating the case as a potential terrorist threat.
"If this had happened 13 or 14 months ago, we wouldn't have thought twice about it," said Ron DeHaven, deputy administrator for veterinary services for the Department of Agriculture. But in the current environment, "we have to think the worst and hope for the best."
Two vials of the material, Actinobacillus pleuropneumoniae, also known as APP, were reported missing Friday, along with notes on swine-vaccine research. Authorities said someone with knowledge of bacteria could replicate it.
The theft, which authorities say stemmed from an unauthorized entry into the East Lansing, Mich., lab sometime late last week, comes at a time when lab security has been questioned around the country, primarily because of the anthrax mailings last year that killed five people.
Lonnie King, dean of Michigan State's College of Veterinary Medicine, said the bacteria normally attack the respiratory system of young pigs. The genetically modified version, however, spreads into the brain, and the animals can die of complications from encephalitis. The researcher was attempting to make a "nonpathogenic" strain to use as a vaccine but ended up with a deadlier version instead, Dr. King said.
"Our concern is because if it manifested itself as encephalitis rather than pneumonia, it would look different" to veterinarians and farmers who might encounter the symptoms, Dr. King said. Infected pigs can be treated with normal antibiotics if people realize the problems are caused by APP.
Mr. DeHaven said one noticeable symptom is convulsions. Death can occur in six to 24 hours.
School officials and the Department of Agriculture have spent the past two days alerting state veterinarians, pork producers, veterinary facilities, schools and labs around the country about the theft and what to look for. "We're taking this very seriously," said Detroit-based Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Terry Booth. "It could wipe out a lot of swine."
The implications of that would be serious from both an economic and dietary standpoint. "Look at the mad-cow disease," Mr. Booth said, referring to the human deaths and the devastation done to Britain's beef industry by that outbreak.
Write to Gary Fields at email@example.com
Updated September 19, 2002
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