The Pasteur Institute in Paris has asked the authorities to investigate the disappearance of more than 2,000 vials containing fragments of the SARS virus, while insisting that missing samples represent no danger to the public.
The institute said it discovered the loss of 29 boxes containing 2,349 tiny vials during a routine inventory check.
Professor Christian Bréchot, the head of the Pasteur Institute, said "human error" was the most likely explanation, but that they "did not want to rule anything out."
"From the start, we’ve known that the samples are harmless,’’ he said.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is an airborne virus. In a 2003 outbreak, it spread to 30 countries infecting 8,273 people and causing a reported 775 deaths, the majority in Hong Kong, for a mortality rate of almost 10 per cent.
An outbreak of a SARS-like illness in 2013 caused a reported 40 cases worldwide, two of them in France, where a 65-year old man died from the illness.
Professor Bréchot said the Pasteur Institute had called in independent health authorities who agreed that, as far as they knew, the samples represented "nil" risk and could not be exploited by potential evildoers.
The vials containing the SARS fragments were kept in a laboratory known as P3.
Professor Bréchot said that "not a single vial" could have left the lab without being sterilized. The Institute closed the lab Monday
The Institute said that tests on the samples, collected from people infected with SARS, had all proved negative in 2003 and that the refrigerator holding the samples had malfunctioned and defrosted in 2012, which would have killed the virus.
Founded by Louis Pasteur in 1887 to fight infectious diseases, the Institute Pasteur has conducted important research on, among others, AIDS, diphtheria, tetanus, tuberculosis, poliomyelitis, influenza, yellow fever, syphilis, rabies and plague. It routinely stores potentially deadly samples.
Professor Bréchot aid that the disappearance of the SARS samples was "unacceptable" and that the institute would conduct an inventory of its "micro-organisms and toxins" within the next month.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
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