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Plague-Infected Mice Missing From N.J. LabOfficials Concerned, but Say Public Health Risk Is Low

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. < p>

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.

"This is the black death," said Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University. "This is the disease that killed a quarter of Europe's population."

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 a government funded bio-defense project to develop vaccines against biological weapons of mass destruction.

The Public Health Institute concedes the missing mice are a problem. "Even though we process 10,000 animals and we can account for nearly all of them, the fact that we couldn't account for three are three too many," said Dr. David Perlin of the Public Health Institute.

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.

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