22 Vials of Something Cross the US Border

May 14, 2009

ON MAY 5, 2009, border agents stopped a man crossing from Manitoba into South Dakota. Making what I presume was a routine vehicle search (been there, done that–long story), the agents discovered a cache of laboratory vials wrapped in foil, tucked into a glove, and zipped into a plastic bag along with some ‘electrical wires’. This doesn’t sound like lunch.

A week goes by. Finally, local press get hold of the story. Konan Michel Yao claims that he quit his job as a researcher in Canada’s Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in January. He also claims that he wished to transfer his ‘research’ from his old job to a new position in the United States–at the Biodefense Lab in Bethesda, to be precise. Yao also claims his research centered around the search for an ebola vaccine and perhaps an HIV vaccine (the reports aren’t clear, but all mention both pathogens).

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Reports coming out of the US and Canada confirm that Yao did indeed work for the Microbiology lab in Winnipeg. However, the lab there insists Yao was only a low-level researcher who had no access to potentially harmful pathogens such as ebola. The US has proclaimed the 22 vials safe, adding that they contained no ebola or other bad guys–and that the CDC is testing the vials.

So, if the CDC is still testing the vials, how does the US government know the vials contain nothing risky? And why are the few stories out there making it sound like Yao is a low-level nobody? If he truly was ‘low-level’, then why would he need to preserve his research by stealing it? Can’t he reproduce it? Bethesda should have the same materials for Yao’s use–and science hinges on reproducible results (the heart of the scientific method is that another scientist would achieve the same answer using an identical technique).

Let’s say Bethesda hired the guy and asked that he bring his research. Wouldn’t the Canadian lab have authorized it and shipped it in biohazard containers? Just what is the real truth here? Is Yao a spy, a terrorist, or a fool?

If the vials contained nothing harmful, then what’s in them that could be so important? Something about this story smells. Though not named precisely by any report, at least one claims the vials contained ‘vectors’. Folks, vectors are used in gene splicing. They are the biological ‘trucks’ that carry the new genetic information into the cells. The vector itself might not be harmful, but the payload could be deadly. Dr. Frank Plummer of the lab in Winnipeg admitted that the vials did contain ebola genetic material. That’s just great.

At the very best, this event underscores the danger of any infectious disease lab located near dense populations of humans or animals. NBAF for example, is the much touted replacement for Plum Island. NBAF is to be built near the campus of Kansas State University. On Plum Island, the pathogens and/or research animals were theoretically isolated from mainstream populations. Not so in Kansas. Lab workers might accidentally or intentionally carry pathogens back to their homes or farms.

At the very worst, this event may reach into an underworld of spies and science–a deadly combination. For every ‘Yao’ that is caught, how many sneak through? Vectors in vials–trucks carrying potentially harmful, perhaps lethal agents. It’s nightmare in the making, and those who protect us are either asleep or intentionally shutting their eyes.

The fourth rider’s hoofbeats are echoing throughout the world. Are you ready to meet him? Trust Christ today. Before it’s too late.