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Plague-Infected Mice Missing From N.J. Lab

Sept. 15, 2005 — Authorities are investigating the disappearance from a New Jersey bioterror research lab of at least three mice carrying a deadly strain of plague.

Sources say FBI agents and bioterrorism experts have interviewed and polygraphed employees at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, N.J., the location of the lab run by the Public Health Research Institute, a leading center for research on infectious diseases.

The mice have been missing for approximately two weeks.

"The FBI responded to the matter, and we dedicated a great number of agents as well as a large number of resources to the investigation," said Special Agent Steve Siegel, a spokesman for the FBI's Newark field office.

"We're satisfied that there is no public safety risk, and there doesn't seem to be any nexus to criminal activity or terrorism," he added.

Lax Procedures?

Nevertheless, federal authorities, including the FBI, have criticized the lab for lax procedures that resulted in a potential public health menace.

Officials discovered two weeks ago a failure to account for three of 24 mice that had been injected with a bacterium that causes various forms of the plague, including bubonic plague, inside the high-security facility located in the middle of the city of Newark.

The injections were part of an experiment testing potential treatments for the plague, according to The Star-Ledger of Newark, which first reported the story in today's editions.

The discovery that three of the mice were missing led to a full investigation by the FBI Joint Terror Task Force, and an ongoing investigation into the lab's safeguards by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, federal sources said.

One employee of the lab was fired nearly two weeks ago.

The investigation included polygraph tests and extensive interviews with all employees of the lab who had access to the three cages where the mice were kept.

Investigators concluded that lab employees failed to properly account for the mice. They believe that when the mice in two of the three cages died, lab workers failed to properly search the cages' bedding before it was incinerated and the mice were packed for biohazard disposal.

The other mice, which survived the exposure to the plague bacterium, also were destroyed after the completion of this phase of the test. They and their bedding also were not properly safeguarded, the investigators found.