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Samples of Bubonic Plague Reported Stolen From Texas Tech

Aired January 15, 2003 - 13:15   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news to bring you now. We're told that samples of bubonic plague have been reported stolen from Texas Tech -- a Texas Tech lab. That is in Lubbock, Texas.
Our Susan Candiotti in Miami working the story. What more can you tell us, Susan?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What we are finding out is this. It is a bit of a, at the very least, an unnerving situation, and the FBI is looking into this. Last night, law enforcement sources tell us the FBI was notified by officials at the University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas that about 30 to 35 vials were missing from that facility, that the vials contained some kind of plague. They don't know precisely what kind of plague at this time.

Also, law enforcement sources tell us they don't know whether these vials were stolen or are simply missing, and so this is what they are looking into at this time. Now, one of our reporters from our local affiliate KJTV had a chance to talk with a city councilman from Lubbock, Texas about this situation.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There have been a number of vials, 35 is a generally accepted number right now, I believe. And they were -- they are missing from the health science center. Jeff, I believe at this time it is inappropriate to claim or to characterize this as stolen vials. They have done a search and have not located them, but there is no indication that there was a theft involved, so I believe characterizing it as stolen is a little bit premature right now...


CANDIOTTI: So naturally at this time, the FBI is taking every step possible to try to pin down exactly what happened here to determine whether, indeed, those vials are simply missing and trying to locate them, and also to determine exactly what was contained in them -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Susan, when we hear bubonic plague, it's definitely a bit frightening. Let's talk a little bit more about it. I mean, this is something that we get from rodents, right, if bitten?

CANDIOTTI: Yes, I'm not the expert on bubonic plague. I want to be extra clear of that, but also law enforcement sources were very clear when they told me they don't know precisely what was contained in these vials. There is no confirmation that, in fact, it is bubonic plague. So again, this is something else that they're trying to pin down.

PHILLIPS: All right, Susan. I am being given some information in my ear. We want to continue talking about this story, is that right? OK. I'm not getting any direction. Susan Candiotti, thank you so much. We'll continue, of course, to follow this story as we get more information.


PHILLIPS: We're following this breaking story out of Lubbock, Texas. Couple things to clarify. We had told you previously that samples of bubonic plague were reported missing from a Texas Tech Lab. We are now told that these may have contained -- these vials may have contained bubonic plague. We cannot confirm that they have been stolen. We are told at this point these vials are missing, possibly containing bubonic plague from a lab from Texas Tech.

Our Elizabeth Cohen with us to talk a little more about bubonic plague, if indeed, it turns up these vials did contain that. Let's talk more about it, and the danger and more information on what it is, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, just the words bubonic plague sounds horrible, and it is. This is the disease that caused millions of people to die in the Middle Ages. And you still get some bubonic plague in the Western part of the United States. Well, the journal of the American Medical Association convened a group and said, tell us, could this bacteria be weaponized? And the answer is, yes, it could.

I'm going to read to you from this report. It says an aerosolized plague weapon would cause fever, cough, chest pain, pneumonia one to six days after exposure, and then within two to four days would lead to septic shock. This panel said that it could be weaponized and it could cause severe problems.

Now, the good news here, though, is that the playing is treatable. As I said, you still see it in the Western United States when rodents bite people and people get the plague, and there are many different antibiotics that can treat it.

Of course, this is all a big if. We don't know where these vials. We don't know if they're in the hands of someone who plans to weaponize them or not. We do know if this person has plans to weaponize them that it is possible -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Why would a lab have vials of bubonic plague? Let's talk about the issues of research and study.

COHEN: Right, it's a good question, it would seem strange, why would a lab have something that's so dangerous. The reason why is it's still a disease that plagues, no pun intended, people in this country. You still get a handful of people in the Western United States who are bitten by rodents and who develop the plague. So this is still a disease that doctors still need to learn more about. They need to learn how to treat it. It's usually caught pretty early, and so doctors are able to give antibiotics, but sometime it's not, and people do sometimes die of this disease still.

PHILLIPS: OK, I'm being told that city officials will be holding a news conference, Elizabeth, soon, with regard to what's taken place there, so we'll bring that to our viewers live once that happens. You're looking actually at a live picture right now. They're getting ready to speak with reporters, so we will take that as we continue to work this story.

If you're just tuning in, Elizabeth, I'll ask you to stay with us. If you're just tuning in, a bit of a frightening report out of Lubbock, Texas right now, samples of possibly bubonic plague reported missing from a Texas Tech lab. Texas Tech University, as you know, is in Lubbock, Texas, and we've been talking with Elizabeth Cohen, our medical correspondent.

I mean, what more can we talk about with regard to bubonic plague? Maybe how it's treated? Let's expand a little bit more, Elizabeth, as we wait for these officials to come forward and talk to us.

COHEN: Right, I think it's important to make a distinction between something like bubonic plague and, let's say, smallpox. The bubonic plague is treatable. It sounds like a horrible disease that killed millions in the Middle Ages, but you actually these days you can do something about it. There are many, many antibiotics that are treat it. Now if you don't catch it early enough and it goes on for days and days or for weeks, then yes, someone can die of it. But I think that's an important distinction to make.

I also think it's all important to point out that many doctors and other experts in this country have gotten together and are going through these diseases, these bacteria one by one saying can it be weaponized and can it be dangerous? Can smallpox be weaponized? What would happen if someone used it? Same with bubonic plague. It's sort of a sad commentary on our times that doctors need to devote themselves to this, but ever since all of the world events, that's, unfortunately, what doctors need to be doing -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: This plague, it's an infectious disease of animals and humans, right? Is it more common in one or the other?

COHEN: Right, it's more common, at this point, in animals. Rodents have it. There are many rodents who have it in the Western part of the United States. When they bite a human being, it infects them. There's a handful of cases every year in the United States, Colorado, New Mexico, states in that area. And again, most of the people who get this disease these days, they're OK, because they're treated with antibiotics. It's the exception rather than the rule that it gets so bad that somebody becomes very ill or dies.

PHILLIPS: What are the symptoms?

COHEN: Symptoms initially would be a cough, a chest pain and fever. It would then go into pneumonia. If it continued to be untreated, it would then go into septic shock. So that's the way that it progresses. PHILLIPS: Let's talk again, kind of brush up on, we're looking at the Web site from the CDC, a pretty graphic picture of what it looks like when you are diagnosed with bubonic plague. But why the lab would have these samples, OK, let's talk more about the research and medical studies surrounding it.

COHEN: Right, this is still a disease that affects people in the Western United States. People still get stick and die from this disease. And doctors want to know how to treat it better. Obviously, it would be terrific if there were a way that nobody would get sick, rather than having to wait for people to get sick to treat them. So it's not surprising to me in Texas, in Western part of the United States, that they would have this. This is not unusual for labs to have these kinds of dangerous bacteria. They are supposed to be kept, obviously, in a secure way. The access is supposed to be limited.

But obviously, as we see here, sometimes things happen. And in this case, they need to track down who has this and they need to obviously figure out a solution to this situation right now.

But it is not unusual for labs to have samples like this. For example, I was in a lab in New York that had zillions of vials of tuberculosis. You might think, wow, why would they have that? It's so dangerous. Well, they know how to treat it. They know how to treat the samples. They know how to be safe with the samples. And labs need to use this, because they need to come up with cures for these diseases -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Obviously, we're living in a very different world now. The threat of terrorism is something that we're all concerned about. Do you think maybe we're paying more attention to this, because we are concerned about acts of terrorism?

COHEN: Oh, absolutely. Even 10 years ago, for example, when I was in public health school 10 years ago, they never even mentioned bioterrorism, it was never even brought up; we were talking about cancer, and AIDS and heart disease, but now, I bet in public health schools across the country, there are classes, probably even majors in bioterrorism. This is something doctors are learning more and more about. You couldn't even do much to study it 10 years ago, and now it's become a very active field of research.

I was saying before that the Journal of the American Medical Association has convened expert panels to look one by one at different agents and what they -- if they could be weaponized, and if this agent were weaponized, what exactly would it do? So this is becoming a very hot field for research. The CDC is giving out more money for this research.

So in a way, if this were to have happened years and years ago, there wouldn't be as much known as there is now. They've got more to go on now.

PHILLIPS: All right, Elizabeth, we're going to ask you, please, to stay with us. And right now, if you're just tuning in, I'll update you on what's happening at this point. We received a bit of a frightening report here at CNN coming out of Lubbock, Texas that we're told that possibly samples of the deadly bubonic plague have been missing from Texas Tech University, a lab at Texas Tech in Lubbock Texas

This report came out just about half an hour ago. No word yet on if definitely that these vials had samples of bubonic plague, and we are waiting for a news conference out of Lubbock, Texas.

City officials are getting ready to address reporters. We're told possibly a couple dozen of these vials could be missing containing bubonic plague. We are going to bring this to you live as soon as it happens.

Meanwhile, our Susan Candiotti live in Miami has been following the story, trying to bring us as much information as possible.

Susan, what more can you tell us?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, according to law enforcement sources the FBI was made aware of the situation last night when they were notified by the Health Science Center, which is associated with Texas Tech University. They do research at this facility, among other things. And they were notified that these 30 to 35 vials containing some kind of a plague are indeed missing.

But, again we stress, the FBI is trying to determine whether they are in fact simply missing or if something else occurred, possibly were they stolen. These are questions that they're trying to have answered. We do know that the dean of the medical school there, Dr. Richard Holmen, did have a lengthy meeting with the FBI about this and also met with his staff to discuss the current situation. And he is believed to be probably participating in this news conference that should begin shortly.

But not long ago, a reporter from our affiliate KJTV had a chance to speak with a city councilman there from Lubbock, Texas, who had been briefed about the situation. His name is Frank Morrison and he's going to fill us in with what he knows.


FRANK MORRISON, LUBBOCK CITY COUNCILMAN: There have been a number of vials, 35 is a generally accepted number right now, I believe. And they were -- they are missing from the Health Science Center. Jeff, I believe at this time it is inappropriate to claim or to characterize this as stolen vials. They have done a search and have not located them, but there is no indication that there was a theft involved. So I believe characterizing it as stolen is a little bit premature right now, Jeff.


CANDIOTTI: So again, FBI is trying to determine what happened to these vials and exactly what was in them. What would they have been doing at this Health Science Center? Well, part of what they do there is research, and so that may very well be what the vials were doing there and what researchers were doing with it. We hope to learn more about that during the course of this news conference -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: And, Susan, obviously the FBI was notified last night. Now that they are involved, I mean, that adds a whole level of seriousness to this. I mean, there's got to be -- you know, there is -- they're not confirming whether this is definitely bubonic plague or not, but the fact that the FBI was called in pretty much tells us this is a big deal, right?

CANDIOTTI: Well, naturally they should be concerned about this, as everyone should be concerned until they determine exactly what happened to these vials. So it certainly wouldn't be surprising and certainly a smart thing to do for the university to contact, or the Health Science Center to contact the FBI to get them involved in this.

And I know that the FBI, according to my sources, has been working on this obviously around the clock since they were notified of it and have been trying to put the finishing touches on exactly what they are going to say about this, how much they will reveal to us, because naturally they don't want to create a panic if none is necessary. Certainly, a level of concern -- no one ever wants to create a panic and that's why they're taking such great care to investigate this and then to release whatever information they're going to tell us about at least publicly during the course of this news conference -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right, Susan Candiotti in Miami, thank you very much.

And if you're just tuning in, I'll sort of update you on the breaking news that we're bringing to you here from the CNN Center in Atlanta.

We've gotten word out of Lubbock Texas, a bit of frightening news that possibly samples of the deadly bubonic plague are missing. About 30 to 35 vials of some type of plague we are told, possibly bubonic plague, missing from a Texas Tech lab. Texas Tech University is in Lubbock, Texas. The FBI has been notified. We are told that city officials will be holding a news conference. We will bring that to you live as soon as that happens.

We've got our Susan Candiotti working the investigation front. We also have our Elizabeth Cohen, our medical correspondent, she is here with us here in Atlanta. Just talking about bubonic plague, more about it from a medical standpoint.

Let's sort of brief our viewers once again on why this story is a concern to us, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, the story is a concern because in the years following World War II both the Soviet Union and the United States found ways to aerosolize the plague. In other words, found ways to weaponize it, to take what is a naturally occurring disease and turn it into a weapon. And they -- the World Health Organization estimates that if someone were to use it as a bioweapon it could be truly devastating. So that's why this is a concern. It is known that this could be a terrible weapon. The way the plague usually works in its natural setting is that fleas that are infected bite rodents, rodents bite people and people get sick. In the bioweapon scenario, you would aerosolize it -- what that means is that you put it in a form where you could spray it and people would actually inhale it. People would first get a cough, a cold, swollen lymphnodes, fever. If untreated, it would then go to a form of pneumonia and it would then go -- a person could then go into septic shock and die. However, this is -- this sounds big and bad what I'm saying. Of course, this is a huge if.

We don't know where those 35 unaccounted for vials are from Texas Tech -- who knows where they are. They could be misplaced. They could be in the hands of someone terrible. It's obviously impossible to say right at this time -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: And we've talked about the threat of bioterrorism. We're in a -- living in a whole different type of world right now.

So in light -- taking that to heart, okay, when you go into these labs and you go and meet with doctors and you're doing your various reporting, do you notice any type of beefed-up security when it comes to something like vials of bubonic plague? Do you see increased security? Have you recognized that?

COHEN: You know, I have to tell you I was in a lab pretty recently in New York that has a lot of strains of tuberculosis, just vial after vial of tuberculosis. I didn't notice security. There weren't armed guards standing at the doors. There weren't people checking IDs as you entered into the individual labs. What I do have to say is that at these labs there were very few people there, and so it would become known if some stranger walked in. But I do have to say that in the labs that I have been at, they're not like Fort Knox. I mean, there aren't security guards standing around all over the place -- I mean, there really can't be.

There are these highly infectious agents in many, many labs throughout the United States. They're in universities, they're in research centers. They -- the ones that I have seen don't have this, you know, very, very stringent security. Now, the lab at the CDC where there is smallpox, yes, that probably has a different level of security. But because the plague is a disease that still exists in this country, labs have to have samples of it. They have to know how to diagnose it. They have to know how to treat it. They want to do research to find a cure for it. So there are many labs in the United States that have these kinds of infectious agents.

PHILLIPS: And, you know, you mentioned smallpox, and we've talked a lot about the threat of smallpox and we're talking about terroristic threats -- when you take smallpox and bubonic plague, how can you compare the two -- can you even compare the two and the threat?

COHEN: Smallpox is really far worse and the reason why is that if you've got smallpox, you're really in trouble. I mean, there is, you know, not a whole lot that can be done for you. Maybe in the first couple days you can -- they can give you the vaccine and see how you do there. But with the plague you can get antibiotics.

As I said, people get bubonic plague in this country still in the Western U.S., and people get antibiotics and they're fine. So the plague is a much less deadly weapon because there is a treatment for it. Now, if you're far gone, if you've had it for several weeks and you've reached the stage where you have pneumonia, or reached the stage where you go into shock then, no, it might not be treatable. But smallpox would be a much more feared weapon.

PHILLIPS: All right, our medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen, we'll ask you to stay with us, sort of stand by.

Brief our viewers on what's happening right now and that is we received word here at CNN, bit of a frightening report out of Lubbock, Texas, possibly 30 to 35 vials of bubonic plague missing from a lab at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. The FBI has been notified.

We are checking all angles of this story. We've got Susan Candiotti in Miami working the investigative front. Also, our Elizabeth Cohen, our medical correspondent talking to us more about the threat of bubonic plague. It still has not been confirmed, though, that these vials were stolen or if indeed bubonic plague is in these vials. It is some type of plague. We are working that story.

City officials in Lubbock, Texas, we are told will be coming forward holding a news conference. We are waiting on that. We will bring that to you live as soon as it happens.


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