EbolaExperts consider implications of Ebola strain being stolen from lab
As the Ebola virus continues to plague several Americans and Europeans and thousands in Africa, researchers are beginning to examine the outcomes should a strain of Ebola be stolen from a testing laboratory. Many scientists in U.S. labs study the Ebola virus in order to find out how they can fight it. They wonder, however, what set of procedures are in place if a sample of the virus was stolen.
As the Ebola virus continues to plague several Americans and Europeans and thousands in Africa, researchers are beginning to examine the outcomes should a strain of Ebola be stolen from a testing laboratory.
As Time reports, many scientists in U.S. labs study the Ebola virus in order to find out how they can fight it. They wonder, however, what set of procedures are in place if a sample of the virus was stolen.
Under current federal regulations, Ebola viewed as “a select agent and toxin” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Additionally, its effects are defined as those that have the “potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety.” Currently, certificates are required for any individual to handle the virus or transfer it to someone else.
According to John Kraemer, an expert on infectious diseases and the law at Georgetown University’s Department of Health Systems Administration, in order to obtain such a certificate means “Meeting a set of biosafety and biosecurity requirements. And, the penalties for failing to do so can be steep.”
In the past, any laboratory which did not uphold these standards had received hefty fines reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2008, safety violations at Texas A&M University in Austin led to a $1 million fine and the threat of criminal charges.
Any individual who steals a disease sample would not only face similar fines of up to $250,000, but also would be looking at a prison sentence of close to five years.
Because Ebola is considered a “viral hemorrhagic fever” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is also seen as a bioterrorism agent, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks which led to new legislation such as the Patriot Act and the Bioterrorism Act which granted the HHS the authority to strictly regulate the virus and the use of permits.
“If however someone broke into a hospital to steal Ebola, it’d be at least ten years [of jail time],” added Kraemer, “If someone acquires Ebola with an intent to weaponize it, then they can get life in prison. And, of course, if you actually use Ebola as a weapon, you can be prosecuted under federal anti-terrorism laws, with penalties up to the death penalty.”
The chances of that happening, however, are not high, considering that anyone stealing Ebola would also risk infecting themselves.
“Stealing an Ebola sample would be extremely dangerous because the thief would face a significant risk of exposure,” said Robert Field, a law professor at Drexel University, “Other pathogens [such as Anthrax] would be safer to steal because protection is easier.”