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News Conference: Vials Accounted For

Aired January 15, 2003 - 14:42   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: If you're just tuning in to CNN, we continue to follow a breaking story out of Lubbock, Texas, 30-35 missing vials out of a medical lab at Texas Tech University, vials containing a bacteria. We are told possibly the bacteria, Yersinia pestis, a bacteria that could cause a plague. Talks of bubonic plague have come up.
But we're also being told from various investigators on this case, our correspondents, our medical correspondents, that -- not to push the panic button. We just want to make that very clear, that the threat of bioterrorism is not a huge concern right now, but the FBI is involved in this investigation.

On the phone with me now, Amy Smithson, a biochemical warfare expert on the phone from Washington, D.C.

Amy, we are continually being told not to blow this out of proportion. What's your take on what you know so far about these missing vials?

AMY SMITHSON, BIOCHEMICAL WARFARE EXPERT: Allow me to join the chorus of individuals encouraging that this not be a cause for panic.

Quite frankly, there are...

PHILLIPS: Amy, hold that thought. Amy, hold that thought. Please listen in as we go live to Lubbock, Texas for the news conference with city council members. Let's listen in. This coming to us via our affiliate KLBK.

Once again, if you are just tuning in, news conference about to start with Lubbock City Council members -- trying to listen and also explain to you at the same time. Here we go.

MAYOR MARC MCDOUGAL, LUBBOCK, TEXAS: Thank you for being here. We apologize for the delay. We wanted to make sure when we called the press conference that we had some good information for you. We do believe that we have that information for you at this point.

The investigation has gone very well. I'd like to invite special agent in charge of the Dallas division of the FBI, Lupe Gonzalez, to come forward -- Lupe.

GUADALUPE GONZALEZ, FBI: Thank you, mayor. Good afternoon. As you all are aware, we had that report yesterday evening that there were some missing vials of a bubonic plague culture from the university. We have accounted for all those missing vials, and we have determined that there is currently is no danger to public safety whatsoever.

The investigation has been ongoing since approximately 6:00 last night. It involved the Lubbock Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Tech University Police, Texas Rangers, the FBI, the Lubbock County Sheriff's Office, the City of Lubbock Health Department, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Texas, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Texas Department of Health.

I would just like to thank all of these agencies that were able to respond to the potential report of the missing vials in an exemplary manner and joined us in a cooperative effort to ensure that we were able to account for these missing vials, and at this time, that's all I'm at liberty to say. We're continuing with our investigation.

Thank you.

DR. DAVID SMITH, CHANCELLOR, TEXAS TECH: Let me make a couple of comments. I also want to particularly thank a number of individuals -- we'll answer some questions in just a minute.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because you're on national television, you need to introduce yourself.

SMITH: OK. I'm Dr. David Smith, I am the chancellor of Texas Tech University Health Science Center and Texas Tech University, the assistant -- former commissioner of health for the state of Texas.

We're very pleased with the outcome here today that the FBI, along with the city police department, city officials, Texas Rangers, along with many others, have been able to account for these vials.

The real issue here is one of public health and public health safety. Obviously, this issue was breaking, as was just stated a few moments ago, over the course of the last number of hours and last evening.

But we wanted to assure when we talked to you that we could say something about public health.

By the way, this is Yersinia pestis. This was a bacteria. It has been reported as bubonic plague. It can cause that, but this is a bacteria that was growing on what we call a gel. These were slants, and they have been accounted for. We feel good about that. I particularly also want to thank the faculty at the Health Sciences Center, because obviously, the chairman, Dean Homan, and others were involved in this, as we both looked at issues related to laboratory, laboratory safety, and, of course, assuring that we had the correct response to protect the public and public safety.

In addition, I really want to thank the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Public Safety, the Rangers, Lubbock Police Department, the Mayor's Office, Texas Tech Police Department, CDC, the Department of Health in Texas, Lubbock Health Department, because everyone pulled together. I'm sorry that we had to test the system here today, but we did. And I will tell you, I would certainly give it an A-plus for everyone pulling together. In fact, it was tested late into the night last night as everyone worked together collaboratively on the public health side as well as on the justice side. And mayor, I want to thank you very much for your efforts.

QUESTION: Can you describe what happened, where they were found?

GONZALEZ: Again, I'd rather not go into that. We're continuing the investigation. We're still in the middle of a criminal investigation. What we can tell you is that they have been accounted for, and there will be further information forthcoming as the information progresses.

QUESTION: Were they not inside the Health Sciences Center?

GONZALEZ: Again, I want to stay away from that.

QUESTION: Can you tell us if any arrests were made?

GONZALEZ: No arrests have been made.

QUESTION: What was the delay in reporting (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

GONZALEZ: I'm not familiar with the delay. The understanding that I have -- I'm sorry? The understanding that I have is that it was reported last night to the police by the doctor from the university, and then we proceeded with the investigation.

QUESTION: Was it not first realized it was missing January 11?

GONZALEZ: That I'm not familiar with.

QUESTION: Can any of you all answer that for me?


RICHARD HOMAN, DEAN, SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: I'm Richard Homan, I am the dean of the School of Medicine. It wasn't clear as to when the samples were unaccounted for, and I was made aware of this yesterday, approximately 3:30 in the afternoon. And at that time, started the process of getting the law enforcement officials and the health department officials engaged in the investigation.

QUESTION: Are they under surveillance cameras or anything like that?


QUESTION: Are they in a secured area?

HOMAN: They're in a secured area, but no surveillance cameras.

QUESTION: Why does the school have this stuff in the first place? HOMAN: The research activities that were being conducted were to identify modern antibiotics to see if they -- this germ was susceptible to modern antibiotics, so it was an investigation like is performed in many academic health centers throughout the country, identifying new information to try to characterize that bacteria more carefully.

QUESTION: Could the cultures of this type be used to produce weapons grade bioweapons?

HOMAN: Yes. That's a potential. That's right. And to my knowledge, I mean, we have some infectious disease doctors here that may perhaps comment more specifically, but there are reports, apparently, that other countries may have weaponized forms of this. This was not weaponized in any way. This was material that was obtained through international colleagues of one of our faculty members that was brought here for further study.

QUESTION: Did the bacteria ever leave Texas Tech Campus?

HOMAN: I think I'd defer that to the FBI's investigation at this point.

QUESTION: Can you tell us who has access to this particular place these were found, the material?

HOMAN: There are a few faculty members that have access to that laboratory, and we're in the process of an internal review to ensure that we can assure that these samples and any other samples from the institution are secure.

QUESTION: Do students have access to that room, do janitors? Is there a master key, or is it just faculty?

HOMAN: Faculty, but housekeeping does have access to that.


HOMAN: There are policies and procedures that we have throughout the Health Sciences Center that we did follow, and were followed as part of that process.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) secure area was broken into at all?

HOMAN: I defer that to the FBI's investigation. I prefer not to comment on that.

QUESTION: If, in fact, these pathogens were weaponized, is there a way to trace them? Do they have a genetic marker to trace them that way, if it shows up five or ten years later?

HOMAN: That's always possible, yes. And yet, these were wild type, naturally-occurring bacteria that actually occur in Texas in rodents throughout the southwest. So you're likely to even be able to culture those from wild rodents in Lubbock and the surrounding communities. There have been reports of rodents and other animals that have carried this bacteria over the past years.

QUESTION: Are they vials or where they petri dishes...

HOMAN: They were small cultures. Auger test tubes with a film of bacteria on the surface of those cultures.

QUESTION: How many were accounted for?

HOMAN: All of them are accounted for.

QUESTION: How many is that?

HOMAN: One hundred and eighty.

QUESTION: Were they ever taken, or just misplaced?

HOMAN: I have to refer you, again, to the FBI's investigation...

PHILLIPS: Well, the good news is the vials are accounted for. The bad news is, whoever moved those vials is probably in really big trouble right now. We've been following a breaking news story out of Lubbock, Texas. Right now, you were just watching a news conference there with various players involved.

The mayor of Lubbock, a FBI special agent, the chancellor from Texas Tech, the medical facility there. Don't know why the vials were not accounted for, don't know how they got moved, but they say the system has now been tested and that gets an A-plus, and a lot of people breathing a sigh of relief right now.

Our Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena has been working this story since it started. And Kelli, obviously, your sources once again didn't lead us in the wrong direction. They told us to ramp it down. It looks like case closed.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, at least for now. I mean, obviously lots of questions that remain to be answered as to motivation. What I have been told by sources is that, as you heard, that the vials have been accounted for, that they pose absolutely no public threat, and as far as those officials would go is just to say that they are just convinced of the accuracy of the statements that they have been presented with concerning those vials.

If we'll get more more later, we'll see. We're still trying, obviously.

But the -- underscore here, no public threat. So that, I think, is very important for people to hear as they breathe a sigh of relief. As we said, there was no intelligence that was gathered to support that there had been any plot.

But it will be interesting to know why -- who this was, you know, where the vials were, who took them, why they were taken, and what was the intended use. Those are the questions that we still have no answer from. As you saw, the special agent in charge there in Texas from the FBI didn't really elaborate much. Just, I guess, wanting to put the public at ease by saying that they all had been accounted for and perhaps, later on today, we'll get a full picture of exactly what went down this morning.

PHILLIPS: Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena, thank you.


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