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Possible virus scare on campus draws FBI, CDC

By Brett Erickson
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
March 31, 2000
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Although the cause of a campus building's evacuation yesterday is being labeled as a likely prank, the incident still drew the attention of officials from the FBI and the Center for Disease Control.

At about 2:45 p.m., a University of Arizona security guard noticed a small vial with a label on it outside the Chemistry and Biological Sciences building, 1340 E. University Blvd. The guard called University of Arizona Police and 911, Tucson Fire spokesman Capt. Joe Gulotta said.

Between 400 and 500 students in class at the time were evacuated from the building, he said.

Although Gulotta would not disclose any details about the vial - including its location, size or contents - UA students in class at the time of the evacuation said they were told by an officer that it was a "bottle of ebola."

"The officer said, 'Excuse me, we're going to need everybody to evacuate in an orderly fashion,'" said Becky Webb, a molecular and cellular biology sophomore.

Gulotta, who again refused to comment about the possibility of the vial containing ebola, did say the bottle was labeled with a substance that is classified as a "biological safety level 4 agent" by the CDC.

He later re-emphasized authorities had not determined the contents of the vial.

"We don't have any idea what's inside this vial," Gulotta said.

The vial was contained by officials from the TFD, FBI and CDC.

"We now have it secured," Gulotta said.

According to Gulotta, the vial was sent last night to the FBI's local headquarters in Phoenix, where it will likely be rerouted to the CDC office in Atlanta for further lab work.

Ed Hall, the Phoenix FBI spokesman, said last night he was unaware of the situation. Even if the vial did contain ebola, the office would not release any details about the investigation, he said.

Michael Cusanovich, the director of Arizona Research Labs, said it is unlikely the vial contained ebola because of the virus' scarcity.

"The probability it was ebola is between zero and minus infinity," said Cusanovich, who is also a UA biochemistry professor.

Cusanovich said only a few laboratories in the United States are studying the biological virus, which can cause a person to "bleed out" if they are exposed to it.

"It's one you handle with extreme care and don't expose people to," he said, adding that the virus operates by perforating the lining of a person's arteries and intestines.

Cusanovich said even though the incident was likely a prank, officials still had to react in an appropriate manner.

"I'm sure it was a prank, but you have to be careful just in case," he said.

After the initial call from the security officer, four fire trucks, about eight police cars, one ambulance and the Hazardous Material Control Unit were dispatched to the building.

UAPD officers put up caution tape to control pedestrian traffic, including the walkway and bicycle lane between the building and the Science Engineering Library.

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