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Vials of Plague Possibly Missing in Texas

Aired January 15, 2003 - 13:43   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're also waiting for a news conference out of Lubbock, Texas. City officials there, we are told, will address reporters. We will bring us as much information as possible. What they can tell us, we'll bring that to you live as soon as it happens.
Meanwhile, Chris Kozlow, a chemical-bio expert out of Washington, D.C. joins us now on the phone -- Chris, does this concern you?

CHRIS KOZLOW, INNOVATIVE EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Sure it does, and I think it concerns a lot of people in this industry. Bubonic plague missing, the accountability of it, and what can be done with it. This isn't like it's a very large device. Someone can carry this, and we don't know what form it was in, but if the person or persons got a hold of this, a terrorist, and they were weaponizing it, now is the time to do it. Signs and symptoms that are covered are cold and flu, and we're in the height of the cold and flu season right now, so we're really ramping up the medical response, getting them ready. That's what would be going on right now, people will be looking at, because it is sort of the silent unknown. You have to look for a big needle in a -- or a little needle in a very large haystack.

PHILLIPS: All right. A couple questions for you. Thirty to 35 vials, let's say it's bubonic plague, all right? And they are saying 30 to 35 vials are missing. How much of an impact could that make? I mean, put it into perspective for us.

KOZLOW: Well, let's go back to 1995 when a white supremacist by the name of Larry Wayne Harris ordered three vials of Yersinia pestis, bubonic plague, from a lab facility. He had enough there, and had the capability to cause some serious danger.

You have to remember, a contagious disease, you need enough to get some people sick, then the bug will take over, and if it's done correctly, it will just keep going and going and going. It's sort of along the lines of that smallpox, very contagious -- it's not like smallpox, but it is very contagious. All you have to be, within 12 inches. Someone coughs on you. I mean, think about it. How many people wash their hands every five minutes of the day? If someone coughs on a telephone, and then I pick up that telephone and I'm already sick a little bit now, I could start to get sick, therefore I become a carrier. It goes off and it's spread throughout the system. So got to catch it, if it's released. We got to find these vials is what we have to do.

PHILLIPS: So, how would you weaponize it? Is it the type of thing where you just go from place to place and dump a little bit in certain areas? I mean, a big public area?

KOZLOW: Well, there's some different ways that you can do it. There's the aerosolization. Very small, you wouldn't even see it. We are talking one to five microns, similar to the anthrax. No one even saw the anthrax letters coming. You could do it as an independent hit. Let's say you wanted to, similar to what the KGB used to do with ricin. They'd find their mark and they would attack them with a small vial of ricin, tag them, and boom, they die. It depends on the ingenuity, or the, I guess the word would be resourcefulness of whoever has this. Let's hope it's just a misplacement, but we have to assume the worst.

PHILLIPS: And you say it depends on what form it was in. What do you mean by that? Is a certain form more dangerous than another?

KOZLOW: Well, more than likely, the vials are very small. They are -- if I was to describe them, probably about -- it depends on what it is, it is probably about an inch. At least that's the kind that was had from -- in past by Wayne Harris.

It's freeze dried, so once it starts to thaw out, the efficacy of it, some of it will die. Some of the agent will die, because it's frozen right now, if it is. If it's not, then -- so that's what I'm talking about in the form. This is in a form right now, somebody probably used this for research. You have to remember all these things are used for research to try and develop new vaccines or what caused black death or other products, so it just depends and I think we'll learn a lot from the news conference as well.

PHILLIPS: You're talking about making a point of why Texas Tech would even have this in its medical lab. Years ago, I worked there, I have lived in Lubbock, Texas, and I remember it was quite a medical hub for West Texas. I mean, we're not talking about some little teeny lab at a university that's no big deal. I mean, a lot of medical research comes out of this university and -- I mean, I'm sure -- have they made major breakthroughs with this bubonic plague? What do you know about what Texas Tech has been able to accomplish with this?

PHILLIPS: Well, you bring up a great point. These medical research facilities that are out there -- I mean, there are hundreds of them all over the country, if not the world. I'm sure that the FBI is going to be looking at exactly what -- this is what we're very concerned about in the anti-terrorism field. Why do you have it? Why do you need it? What are your security precautions? This has been the nightmare scenario for most of us. If I can break to a lab and get something that's unguarded.

Take a microbiology student who's doing a thesis or a research paper or is trying to develop something and they get their hands on this stuff, they know exactly where to go. So I think it would be too early for me to say right now why they actually would have this, not second guessing, but you bring up a good point. These research facilities -- Johns Hopkins, CDC, clearly has Ebola, they clearly have smallpox. We keep those reserves to do research. You know, we don't eradicate everything. So one of the things that we'll be looking at is why actually they have it, and what they were doing with it, what were the controls? Who worked on it, and issues like that.

PHILLIPS: That's a good point, who worked on it. OK. Chris Kozlow, chemical-bio expert, thank you so much. We're going to ask you to stay with us, please, as we continue to work this story.

Also with us, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, also Elizabeth Cohen, our medical correspondents here at CNN.

Sanjay, let's start with you. A number of points you've brought up with me here. Why don't you just take it away and start talking about this bacteria and the bubonic plague, and add to what Elizabeth has been telling us.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: That is right. Well, we know a lot about Yersinia pestis. That is actually the bacteria that causes plague, and that is sort of a generic term. When we talk about bubonic plague, when we talk about pneumonic plague, we're actually talking about the disease that actually causes the infection. So bubonic plague is something that actually occurs two to six days or so after someone's actually been infected with this bacteria, this bacteria that is the presumably stolen or missing bacteria.

Seven to ten days later is when we start talking about pneumonic plague. That's the more dangerous kind. That's the kind that people can possibly spread from person to person. That's the kind that's in your lungs. When you cough, you can actually cough up some of this bacteria and spread it to someone else, and that's what makes this concerning.

That's why the World Health Organization is actually concerned about this as a possible weapon of bioterrorism. But that's all we sort of know about that. It is pretty rare in this country, ten to 20 cases a year or so, a few thousand around the world.

Certainly research institutions both in the United States and around the world do do research on Yersinia pestis. Again, that is the bacteria that causes plague so they can develop more appropriate and more effective antibiotics and treatments for it, and that's a pretty good reason as to why some research institutions would have this sort of bacteria sitting around. There is good treatment for it. There is an antibiotic if someone is actually suspected to have this. It is such an unusual diagnosis that doctors may not suspect this. But if they are, there are some treatments available.

PHILLIPS: Why is it called bubonic?

GUPTA: Bubonic plague is -- it comes from a very good reason. When someone actually develops this infection, they get swollen lymph nodes, and these swollen lymph nodes typically are in the groin, and those lymph nodes can be very painful, very hard, very swollen. They're actually called bubos. And from that term "bubos," you get the term "bubonic" plague, and that is essentially where that term comes from. Again, that's different from pneumonic plague, which is sort of a later consequence of this infection. When someone gets pneumonic plague, they can start to actually possibly spread it from person to person.

PHILLIPS: How many cases have we seen of someone being infected with bubonic plague say, in the -- I don't know -- year, couple of years?

GUPTA: The average is about 10 to 20 cases per year in the United States. It's a few thousand around the world. Certainly in developing countries, it tends to be more prominent. Sort of the southwestern part of the United States, where a lot of these rodents -- the most likely way that it's spread is rodents actually biting human beings. We heard about a case like this, I think, this year, Elizabeth, I think you and I talked about it, where someone actually got bit by rodents and actually got the plague, the bubonic plague that way. But again, a very rare thing, 10 to 20 cases a year, maybe, on average -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. And we'll bring in our Elizabeth Cohen, right there by your side, our other medical correspondent here at CNN. Elizabeth, what more would you like to add as we're waiting for this news conference out of Lubbock, Texas with city officials. What more can we add to the discussion in addition to what Sanjay has said?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, what I think I'd like to add here is that I think sometimes that people have the impression that horrible things like, for example, the bacteria that causes the plague must be under lock and key, under very tight security.

And you know what, that is not really true. There are many, many labs, as Sanjay said, across the country that have this because research needs to be done. And all sorts of different kinds of bacteria and virus, and they're shared among researchers.

They will sometimes mail them to one another. They are shared with researchers outside the United States. In fact, at one point they were even shared with researchers in Iraq until the government said, No, you can't mail them to people in Iraq or North Korea, and then a list of other countries. So these things sort of travel between researchers more than you might think.

In fact, in 1995, an Ohio microbiologist with some suspect motives was arrested after he acquired some by mail. So these things do -- researchers do have them in their labs. They -- the labs that I have been in that have horrible bugs like this, they don't have armed guards at the doors. It's because most researchers, of course, the vast majority, are trustworthy and they need to work with these bacteria. They need to come up with better treatments, they need to come up with better ways to diagnose these diseases, and that's why you see these kinds of very dangerous bacteria and viruses in labs.

PHILLIPS: All right, Elizabeth Cohen and Sanjay Gupta. We're going to ask you both to just kind of stand by with us here as we continue to work the story.

If you are just tuning in, breaking news here at the CNN Center out of Lubbock, Texas. The report is that possibly 30 to 35 vials of the deadly bubonic plague are now missing from Texas Tech University Health Science Center. We have not been able to confirm if, indeed, it is bubonic plague, but it is 30 to 35 vials of some type of plague.

We have been told from various sources it's possibly bubonic plague that was reported missing yesterday. The FBI was notified. The investigation is underway now. We're trying to bring you as much information on this story in addition to the effects of bubonic plague as we can.

Our Kelli Arena, Justice correspondent, now joining us with more on the investigation that's taking place. What exactly, Kelli, is the FBI doing right now? How does an investigation like this go down?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, obviously the call came in last night from the university, and so what the FBI is trying to determine is exactly, A, what happened to the vials. They're missing. There's no evidence that they were stolen. There's no evidence of foul play at this point.

So they start from square one and move forward and try to discern what happened to them? What is in the vials, and where they may be, obvious sequence of events.

What we need to underscore here is that A, as I just said, there's no indication that they were stolen or any evidence of foul play. So the officials are still trying to determine exactly what happened to the vials. And this could turn out to be something more innocent than it first appears.

The second thing is that officials both at the Justice Department and at the FBI have said that as far as they're concerned and the information that they have, these vials cannot be used in any weapon form. This cannot be used to contaminate a large population of people. The third thing that officials have underscored is that they are not sure whether or not the plague is actually in the vials. They believe that there may be bubonic plague in the vials, and we did hear from a Texas councilman, a Lubbock councilman saying that yes, he did believe that there was bubonic plague in the vials, but not all of those vials are to believed to have contained the plague itself. So just to sort of put things in perspective here.

The White House has been briefed on this matter. As a matter of fact, we just heard from White House spokesman Ari Fleischer just moments ago. Let's listen to what he had to say.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I am aware of the report, and this is a matter that the FBI and the CDC have been in touch with Texas Tech about, and anything further will come from them. That's the extent of everything I have on this now.

QUESTION: They're saying that the White House has been briefed on this.

FLEISCHER: That's correct. QUESTION: That briefing was...

FLEISCHER: This is information that is just coming in to the White House, and has been for just a short period of time, as well as to the FBI. I'm not in a position to give you any additional information at this time about it, and it is something that is being talked to with the FBI and the CDC to ascertain what all the facts are.


ARENA: FBI agents are working very closely with state and local partners in Texas. As you know, Kyra, the level of cooperation has greatly increased since the September 11 attacks, and so those contacts have long been established, and the working relationship much more seamless than it's ever been before, so all -- all partners in law enforcement are working together to try to figure out, A, what happened to the vials, B, where they may be, and C, what danger, if any, they pose -- back to you.

PHILLIPS: All right, Kelli. I was talking with this chemical- bio expert just a few minutes ago, and now I'm hearing what you're saying from authorities. So it's not possible, then, to weaponize what allegedly has been taken from this lab? Is that what you were saying?

ARENA: Well, that's what officials have said to me, that after conferring with officials from the CDC, that they have determined that it would not be able to use this as a weapon, that it would not be -- they would not be capable of contaminating a large number of people by using the cultures that would exist in these vials. That is, at least, the information that law enforcement officials got from health officials on this matter.

I have to say, Kyra, that while we were told that the FBI was aggressively pursuing this matter, there was not a heightened sense of concern. This was -- I have spoken to these officials, as you know, every single day, and there is a level of urgency and there's a level of concern that has been expressed about other matters. This is not one of them.

This is -- they are -- they say that obviously, this is serious. They are doing what they can to pursue the matter, that they're working with their state and local partners, but there's not this -- this -- you know, upgraded level of anxiety and concern about the matter, and I think that maybe that may provide a little comfort to those that are watching and wondering if they or relatives they may have in Texas are in any danger.

PHILLIPS: So Kelli, should we not use the phrase bioterrorism then? Is there not a threat, an imminent threat here, of bioterrorism?

ARENA: Kyra, I can only tell you that officials have suggested to me that there is not, that they do not believe that that -- what is in those vials can be used as a weapon. That's what I have been told by officials.

Now, if someone else comes out from a health department and says, from the CDC and says, Well, officials were wrong, I'm waiting to hear that. But the information that I have up to this point -- and I have not spoken to the CDC, I have spoken, obviously, to the law enforcement, Justice side of this equation, and they have been told, they tell me, by health officials, that it cannot be used as a weapon.

PHILLIPS: All right. We just don't want to make a big deal out of something if there is no need to, of course.

ARENA: I'm along with you, Kyra. Absolutely.

PHILLIPS: OK. Kelli Arena, thank you very much.


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