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Originally published Friday, September 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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3 plague-infected lab mice missing

Three laboratory mice infected with the bacteria responsible for bubonic plague are missing from a bioterrorism-research facility in Newark...

Newhouse News Service

NEWARK, N.J. — Three laboratory mice infected with the bacteria responsible for bubonic plague are missing from a bioterrorism-research facility in Newark, sparking an investigation by federal and state authorities.

Officials said the animals could have been stolen from the center, one of the top-level biocontainment labs in New Jersey — or simply misplaced. The discovery occurred more than two weeks ago and was confirmed Wednesday after questions were raised by The Star-Ledger newspaper.

State Health Commissioner Fred Jacobs said mice infected with plague bacteria die "very fast," so "the risk to the public ... is probably slim to none."

The lab is on the campus of the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey. It is run by the Public Health Research Institute, a leading center for research on infectious diseases participating in a six-year, federal biodefense project to find new vaccinations for plague, which officials fear could be used as a weapon.

At least 24 employees and researchers at the lab have been interrogated by the FBI and, in some cases, have taken lie-detector tests. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also is investigating. "Right now, we are as satisfied as we can be that there is no public-safety risk," said Special Agent Steve Siegel, an FBI spokesman.

Infectious-disease experts agreed that if the mice escaped from the lab, the public-health risk was likely minimal. However, they said the episode raised serious issues of security and control at the lab.

The facility is a biosafety level 3 containment lab, which works with diseases that are lethal or can cause serious health problems, including bubonic and pneumonic plague and typhoid fever. The number of research labs has been expanding in response to the Bush administration's funding for biodefense research.

However, in July, the University of Washington — lacking money and community support — ditched plans for a regional biocontainment lab proposed for the south campus near Portage Bay.

Investigators said the mice at the New Jersey lab were injected as part of an inoculation and vaccination experiment with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic plague and other forms of plague.

Health officials say 10 to 20 people in the United States contract plague each year, usually through infected fleas or rodents. It can be treated with antibiotics, but about one in seven U.S. cases is fatal. Bubonic plague is not contagious, but left untreated it can transform into pneumonic plague, which can be spread from person to person.

David Perlin, scientific director of the Public Health Research Institute, said the mice were among 24 animals injected with plague bacteria Aug. 18.

The trials involved eight mice in each of three cages. One group had been given a test vaccine against the plague. A second was given a known and effective vaccine. The third received no vaccine.

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Three days later, all the mice in two cages were dead. No count was taken and the carcasses were bagged and frozen. Those cages were sterilized and the bedding and other materials inside were incinerated, Perlin said.

In the third cage, eight of the infected lab mice that had received the proven vaccine were alive and accounted for Aug. 25. But Aug. 29, seven were found alive in the cage, and researchers went back to the frozen carcasses to find just seven in each set. They called the CDC. Then the FBI was called.

Perlin said investigators and scientists think the missing mice may have been eaten by the others in the cages.

Material from The Associated Press and Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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