Officials identify suspect in theft of infectious agent from MSU laboratory

Published on October 15, 2002
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Veterinarians and pork producers TO REMAIN ALERT for suspicious illnesses

Michigan State University officials announced Sept. 20 that a suspect has been identified in the theft of a swine pathogen and research materials from a university laboratory in mid-September.

Samples of Actinobacillus pleuropneumoniae, a common bacterium in swine that causes respiratory infections in young pigs, were stolen from a laboratory in the Biomedical and Physical Science Building at the university sometime between Sept. 12 and Sept. 13, according to university officials.

Since the start of the school year, two other incidents have been reported in the building, a $93 million, state-of-the-art building that opened in April, raising concerns about security. Eight 4-liter bottles of acetic acid were reported stolen from a locked storeroom in the chemistry department between July 1 and Sept. 10, and a possible break-in was reported in the Veterinary Medical Center pharmacy Sept. 26.

The theft of the biologic materials has been particularly troubling to many in the veterinary community.

The bacteria are not a threat to human health, according to Dr. Lonnie King, the dean of MSU's veterinary college.

The theft, however, raised concerns among veterinarians and pork producers that the stolen agent, a highly virulent strain of APP that causes respiratory infections, encephalitis, and sudden death in grower and finisher pigs, might be used to infect swine.

In fact, the Department of Agriculture issued an emergency management notice Sept. 17 urging veterinarians and swine producers to closely monitor swine populations for unusual respiratory signs and sudden death, after the agency received reports of the theft.

But university officials say they have evidence that the biologic samples were destroyed.

"There's no evidence it was ever intended to be used," said Terry Denbow, the vice president of communications at the university.

According to the university, the suspect worked in the building where the theft occurred. A statement from the university indicated that the individual was identified through an investigation by the university's Department of Police and Public Safety, materials seized, and the suspect's statements.

"This has been a particularly difficult and sensitive investigation for MSU and the research community," said Jim Dunlap, university chief of police, in a statement. No charges had been filed at press time.

The FBI is also investigating the incident because the research was supported in part by federal funds.

As always, veterinarians and swine producers should remain alert to unusual signs in pigs such as encephalitis and acute pneumonia, as well as sudden death, and report any suspicious cases of APP infection to the state or area veterinarian, according to USDA officials.