The case of the Lost Virus

A recent Reuters report entitled, “Virus lost by US lab said enough to infest everyone in the world” (The Globe and Mail Sept. 24, 1986) describes the 1981 disappearance of a large quantity of chikungunya virus from a refrigerator in an unguarded US Army laboratory. There was apparently no proper investigation of this loss and, in May of 1986, the Army Inspector General indicated the Army had “no established procedures for responding to such a problem”. It is also said that a former Army scientist who did research at the laboratory claims “Enough of the virus is missing to infect the entire world population, used as a weapon”.

The virus was stored at Fort Dietrich, Md., according to the Foundation on Economic Trends, an environmentalist group that has sued the Pentagon. The Pentagon has denied to the Congress that there is a threat to the public — despite a cited Pentagon document that states that chikungunya virus poses a menace of disease of explosive potential either as a biological warfare agent or a natural disease threat.

A more moderate estimate of the threat comes from a prominent University of Toronto microbiologist who has had direct experience with the virus and who points out that it has been endemic in East African populations and in parts of India, but that its transmission to humans requires particular species of mosquito vectors, vectors that are absent in most parts of the world including North America. Without these highly specific vectors, the virus could probably be transmitted effectively only by deliberate injection.

Scientists and the concerned public should note that such a theft of a disease — producing virus can occur so easily, never to be traced, under the lax security conditions of an Army laboratory. With the horrifying prospect of renewed US research into candidate organisms for germ warfare and an aileged continued program of such research in the USSR, the public can pnly wait in auguish on the likelihood of a mishap similar to that of the chikungunya virus, but involving some much more deadly and readily transmissible pathogenic organism.

-Alan Weatherley