May 13, 2009

Scientist Detained Crossing US Border With Ebola, HIV Vials

U.S. and Canadian authorities reported Wednesday that a Canadian scientist had been arrested for carrying 22 vials used in Ebola and HIV research into the United States.

Konan Michel Yao, 42, was taken in to custody May 5 while crossing from Manitoba province into North Dakota, said a spokeswoman for Canada's Public Health Agency, which runs the National Microbiology Lab from which the vials were stolen.

U.S. prosecutor Lynn Jordheim said Yao was detained for possession of unidentified biological materials in vials wrapped in aluminum foil inside a glove and packaged in a plastic bag, in addition to electrical wires, in the trunk of his car.

In an affidavit, the Ivory Coast-born scientist said he had stolen the vials from the Winnipeg lab on January 21, his last day of work there.

Yao, who studied at Laval University in Quebec and briefly worked at the University of Manitoba's plant sciences department, told U.S. border guards he was taking the vials to his new job with the U.S. National Institutes of Health at the Biodefense Research Laboratory in Bethesda, Maryland.

But U.S. authorities feared the vials could pose a terrorist threat. 

However, later tests ultimately revealed the vials were "not hazardous," according to Jordheim.

"This turned out not to be a terrorism-related case," he said during an interview with AFP.

"It appears to be exactly as he (Yao) said. However, he still faces possible charges for smuggling the vials into the United States."

In the mean time, Yao remains in U.S. custody and has waived his right to bail and preliminary hearings.  He now awaits a possible grand jury indictment for smuggling, Jordheim said.

A spokeswoman for Canada's Public Health Agency told the AFP that Yao "was working on vaccines for the Ebola virus and HIV, among other things."

"But he only had access to harmless and non-infectious materials, similar to what you'd find in a hospital or university lab. He did not have access to dangerous materials," she said.