CINCINNATI (WKRC) - Deadly viruses and killer bacteria sent from locations around the world arrive every day and night at the Port of Cincinnati, one of the country's busiest air freight hubs.
After the pandemic, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) brought together an elite group of specialists for its Biological Threat Operations team, which now inspects these packages to keep the country safe from contagious cargo.
Local 12’s chief investigative reporter Duane Pohlman gained exclusive access to this hidden world, revealing the dangers posed and the remarkable work done by these specialists to prevent pathogens in the packages from getting out.
“CLEAR AND PRESENT THREAT”
In a lab nestled inside the Port of Cincinnati, Pohlman joined CBP biological threat specialist Sharon Bishop as she inspected a suspicious package she had pulled from conveyer belts that buzz outside.
“So, we have a box here. It's not been opened,” Bishop said, holding a small white box that was being sent from the United Kingdom to Chicago.
Next to the address was a clue about its contents.
A stamp inside a diamond-shaped black outline contained the code for a contagion that was lurking inside.
“UN3373 Category B,” Bishop said, reading the label. “Those are sort of bookends, saying that this is an infectious substance.”
Carefully, she cut the box open, revealing a small plastic container labeled "DNA" tucked inside a cutout in the package.
“So, you have a little box that contains some vials,” she said.
Bishop says the label is too vague to tell her what the substance is, and that the package isn’t secure enough to protect people from the pathogens inside.
“It's a clear and present threat as it is right now,” Bishop said, explaining that she was holding the package to prevent the pathogens from traveling any farther.
Nearby, a Styrofoam cooler labeled as infectious material was Bishop’s next target for scrutiny.
She cut the tape at the top, saying, “I'm just going to pop the lid."
Inside the cooler, dry ice produced a fog, then opened up to reveal a small, tightly-wrapped red box.
Bishop read the manifest.
“This is animal DNA that is infectious," she said.
Then, she asked Pohlman to read another document attached to the shipment.
“The samples are derived from a human, so that doesn't match at all," he said.
That was enough for Bishop to stop the inquiry.
“I am not going to open that,” she said, explaining the threat from the disconnected documents was enough to cause concern.
READ MORE: US Customs and Border Protection’s page on export/import of biological materials
Bishop is on the front lines, defending America from lethal, microscopic enemies -- part of CBP’s Biological Threat Operations team that formed in 2019 and began operating in 2021.
Like all specialists in this elite team, Bishop is trained to pull packages off the line and pluck vials of pathogens that are being sent from around the world every day.
“We're wanting to make sure that we don't introduce the next COVID,” Bishop said.
That includes finding COVID-19 itself inside some of the packages.
While most of the vials of the contagion that triggered the pandemic are in proper packages, Bishop says some are not.
Recently, she intercepted a shipment of COVID-19 proteins in vials that were loosely packed inside a blue box. She says it also wasn’t properly labeled.
The shipment was halted, and the contents were safely repacked and allowed to ship to their final destination.
While most of the threats Bishop catches are technical violations, others are very real and deadly threats.
She recently snared a suspicious package and had it X-rayed.
The image revealed glass vials loosely packed in bubble wrap. A closer examination revealed the vials contained blood, which Bishop determined was "drawn from a horse, suspected to be infected with glanders."
Glanders is a bacteria that is fatal to both horses and people.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “without treatment with specific antibiotics, as many as nine of every 10 people who get it die.”
Even with the correct antibiotics, the CDC says “up to five of 10 people die.”
Yet, the horse blood suspected to have this insidious disease was just a crack away from causing deadly contamination.
Bishop described the moment she discovered the threat.
“So, if that shipment had broken at any point in the process, the vials were glass, you know, and had it cut somebody and exposed them to that, then it's very likely they would have died,” she said.
The vials were safely disposed of as medical waste.
When asked if incidents like this keep her awake at night, Bishop said, “Sometimes, I mean, I have worried at times before, yes.”
Bishop and Pohlman stepped back as another package came into focus. This one was from Russia.
“So, allow me to look at this,” Bishop said as she peeled back the bubble wrap.
But this one was too troubling for Bishop to proceed, and she wrapped up the package until she could get more information about the vials inside.
“We're going to leave this like this," she said.
Despite the obvious dangers of her job, dedication drives Bishop and other CBP specialists to keep searching and pinpointing the next threat posed by pathogens in the packages.
“This is very important to every single person on the planet,” Bishop said.