UVA Lab Destroys Deadly Virus

By: Whitney Holmes
By: Whitney Holmes

April 13, 2005

UVA microbiologists were hard at work Wednesday, averting what could have been a very fatal mistake.

"People in the laboratory who were working with the organism could get an infection. And if that occurred, then that person would have the flu and could go out into the community and spread it among the community. You could ultimately cause a pandemic," said director of UVA's Center for Clinical Microbiology, Dr. Kevin Hazen.

This was the worst case scenario after an Ohio bioscience company accidentally released a deadly strain of a flu virus that was responsible for killing millions of people in 1957.

The strain was sent unlabeled to nearly 5,000 labs for a routine testing procedure.

"It's part of what's called a routine proficiency test. It's an international program used by laboratories to assess their ability to correctly identify and diagnose infectious diseases," said Hazen.

Luckily a Canadian lab identified the strain. The World Health Organization ordered labs in Charlottesville and across the globe to destroy the virus by performing a procedure called autoclaving or steam sterilization.

"You put it (the organism) at 121 degrees centigrade with fifteen pounds of pressure for fifteen minutes and that sterilizes the organism," explained Hazen who oversaw the sterilization.

Labs in the U.S. performed the procedure on Wednesday, April 13. Labs across the planet will do the same by Friday, averting what could have been a global disaster.

Doctors stress that the public was only in danger if someone working in the lab was infected and then went out into the community. This did not occur.

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