A woman looking to avoid “unwanted questions” had to answer to U.S. customs officials when they found 19 vials and tubes with DNA samples in her luggage upon arriving from Russia, federal prosecutors said.
She said she smuggled vials over concerns that customs inspectors would think “disease agents” were inside and that they’d be taken from her at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, according to prosecutors.
The vials, packed in a Styrofoam cooler with dry ice and labeled as “Research Samples,” contained DNA from different animal species — including from two species considered endangered under federal law, according to prosecutors.
Now the woman, a Russian national who also lives in Leesburg, Virginia, has since pleaded guilty to smuggling animal DNA into the country, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia announced in an April 24 news release.
McClatchy News contacted her attorney for comment on April 26 and didn’t immediately receive a response.
Why did the woman bring animal DNA into the US?
On a customs declaration form, the woman lied and said she wasn’t bringing any animals, animal products or cell cultures into the U.S. when she arrived at Dulles airport on Aug. 19, prosecutors said.
An inspection of her luggage proved otherwise, and customs officers discovered the Styrofoam cooler with nine empty tubes and 10 vials with a “yellowish substance” inside, according to court documents. She admitted animal DNA and “cell lines” were inside, according to prosecutors.
The woman said she was a researcher at the Institute of Molecular & Cellular Biology in Novosibirsk, Russia, where she studies evolution and sequences animal DNA, a statement of facts filed in court says.
She denied working for the Russian government but said the institute is funded by Russia, according to the statement of facts. She also said the institute’s lab doesn’t deal with viruses, ”dangerous pathogens,” or military projects.
The woman told officers she wanted to sequence the animal DNA in the U.S. as part of her research but didn’t have any documents to corroborate this, prosecutors said.
If she had declared having the DNA samples on the customs form, she feared “there would be too many questions” she couldn’t answer without paperwork, according to the statement of facts.
What kinds of animal DNA samples were inside the vials?
The woman told customs officers that most of the DNA samples were of “mustelids,” including mink and Siberian polecat, according to the statement of facts.
About 55 animal species, such as ferrets, badgers, otters and wolverines, are mustelids, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Samples from two species, however — dhole and Siberian crane — are endangered under U.S. law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, prosecutors said.
Dholes, which are from eastern and southern Asia, are red-haired dogs reminiscent of foxes but with longer legs.
Siberian cranes, which are white with red foreheads and legs and have wings with black tips, are mostly found in East Asia, including northeastern Siberia.
The animal samples were suspended in a medium that also had “fetal bovine serum” from cattle, according to the statement of facts.
She said “bringing the vials from Russia was her last-minute decision, and she was aware that it would take a long time to go through the proper authorization process with the United States government,” the statement of facts says.
The woman is facing up to 20 years in prison, but due to this being a federal crime it’s possible the sentence will be less than the maximum penalty, prosecutors said.
Her sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 24.
Leesburg, where the woman lives, is about 40 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.
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