Ebola Blood Samples Stolen by Bandits in Guinea

A bizarre – and quite confusing – story was reported by the Associated Press today.

It was a highway robbery but the bandits got more than they bargained for when they stopped a taxi van in Guinea and made off with blood samples that are believed to be infected with the deadly Ebola virus.

Details are a bit sketchy, but apparently the Red Cross used a minibus taxi to transport blood samples for a 165 mile trip from central Kankan prefecture to a test site in southern Gueckedou.

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Here’s where it gets odd:

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The samples, stored in tightly wrapped vials tucked into a cooler bag, were in the care of a Red Cross courier who was among nine passengers sharing a taxi when three bandits on a motorbike led the attack near the town of Kissidougou, a local Red Cross official said.

Okay, so the samples (plural) were in vials (plural) in a cooler bag.

But then there’s this:

The robbers forced the passengers out, stole mobile phones, cash, and jewelry, and fired into the air as they demanded the handover of the cooler bag, said Saa Mamady Leno of the Red Cross in Gueckedou. The courier, Abubakar Donzo, was later questioned by police.

Faya Etienne Tolno, a spokesman for the Guinea Red Cross, said the aid group had a shortage of vehicles for transport, which explains why a taxi was used. No one was injured in the incident, which took place on a road known for banditry.

“We don’t understand why they stole the blood sample. Perhaps they thought there was cash hidden in the flask,” Tolno said.

A few questions come to mind after reading the AP article:

1) Was it only one blood sample? There are other references to samples.

2) What flask? There was an earlier reference to vials.

3) The robbers allegedly demanded the cooler bag. Why did Tolno say “Perhaps they thought there was cash hidden in the flask“? If the vials, or flask, or whatever containers were holding the blood, how would the robbers know that if they were in a cooler bag?

ABC News posted an earlier version of the same AP story, and there are some differences:

The samples were drawn from a single person and were stored in a sealed container, and handed off to the taxi driver when armed bandits stopped the vehicle the aid group had commissioned near the town of Kissidougou, said Faya Etienne Tolno, a press officer for the Guinea Red Cross.

Okay, so the samples were “were stored in a sealed container and handed off to the taxi driver.”

That’s quite different than what the later version of the AP story said:

The samples, stored in tightly wrapped vials tucked into a cooler bag, were in the care of a Red Cross courier who was among nine passengers sharing a taxi…

Were the samples carried by a taxi driver or a Red Cross courier? Maybe those are the same thing. Hmm.

Voice of America reported the story a little differently:

Thieves in Guinea have stolen a cooler containing the blood samples of suspected Ebola patients.  The robbers took the samples after attacking a vehicle on a remote highway Thursday.

The thieves intimidated people on board the vehicle and stole a number of items, including cash and the box containing the blood samples.

Dr. Mumeya Barrie, who heads a Guinean committee coordinating the fight against Ebola, says the samples were due to be tested for the deadly virus.

He says armed robbers effectively attacked a vehicle on which there were blood samples of suspected Ebola patients due to be processed at a laboratory in Geuckedou.

Here we have references to a cooler with samples from “suspected Ebola patients.”

Were the samples from one person or many? If many, how many?

The authorities are trying to get the robbers to turn in the samples:

Authorities publicly appealed on national radio Friday to the unidentified robbers to hand over the samples that were stolen from the taxi during its 265-kilometer (165-mile) trek on winding rural roads from the central Kankan prefecture to a test site in southern Gueckedou.

Dr. Barrie warned of the dangers of handling the samples:

Mumeya warned the thieves against touching the blood samples and urged them to immediately return the cooler.

He says the blood is already dangerous, and if they manipulate, it will be extremely dangerous to them and to their communities.  He says measures have been taken by the Ebola coordinating committee to reinforce the security of their vehicles carrying blood samples.  He says now they have put in place strong security measures and this will be reinforced in the days to come.

It sounds like Dr. Barrie is concerned, and rightfully so.

But, have no fear, because an American health official said he’s not worried about the samples being in the hands of criminals:

A top U.S. official for containing infectious diseases says he is not concerned by reports that bandits – perhaps unwittingly – hijacked a taxi in Guinea carrying blood samples of Ebola victims, saying the report is dwarfed by the ongoing crisis that continues to kill an unprecedented number of people in West Africa.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had not heard of the Guinea report, but tells U.S. News it does not specifically concern him amid much more important issues.

The samples are still missing and the motive behind the theft is unknown, though the route is known for banditry. (source)

Is this a case of a clueless bunch of thieves truly not knowing what they were stealing, or is there something more sinister going on here?


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