Chinese scientist held for smuggling bacteria
SYRACUSE, New York (CNN) -- A former Cornell University researcher remained jailed indefinitely on federal smuggling charges after the cancellation of a hearing in his case, the FBI said.
The researcher, a Chinese citizen, was arrested last Sunday after an airport bag check found that he and his wife and 4-year-old daughter were carrying more than 100 glass vials of commercially valuable bacteria stolen from the university.
Yin Qing Qiang 38, waived his right to a pre-trial hearing, and to a hearing within 10 days of his arrest, effectively keeping him in jail until there is an indictment or a plea in the case, FBI Supervisory Agent Phil Looney told CNN in a telephone interview.
Yin waived those rights to gain more time to prepare a "more persuasive" bail request, Yin's attorney, David Secular, told CNN.
Airport security found vials and petri dishes of the bacteria in luggage carried by Yin, his wife, Zheng Quihong, 36, and their daughter, according to a federal criminal complaint obtained by CNN.
Several vials were leaking, including one in a backpack worn by the daughter, the complaint said.
Yin and his family had been scheduled to board a Northwest Airlines flight to Shanghai via Detroit before they were arrested.
The alleged motive was money, not terror, officials said.
"It could be worth millions to the company that made it," Cornell spokesperson Linda Grace-Kobas told CNN. She added the bacteria is not dangerous.
Cornell researchers have used the bacteria to develop a new enzyme called "Phytase" to improve nutrition intake by farm animals and to reduce phosphorous pollutants in animal waste.
Yin had been told not to return to work and had been sent a letter warning him of potential legal action after a letter he allegedly had written was found about July 5 on a Cornell computer, according to an FBI deposition included in the criminal complaint.
In the letter, Yin allegedly was seeking work in China and offering his access to the bacteria, Linda Grace-Kobas said.
"I have some strains of bacteria and fungi for commercial production," Yin allegedly wrote in the undated and unaddressed letter now called Government Exhibit A. "I hope these products will benefit our country."
When he was arrested, Yin denied that he had planned to give the bacteria to anyone in China, said the deposition by FBI Special Agent Margarita Alvarez-Fitzgerald. However, "he claimed that he felt the materials belonged to him."
The substances found in vials and petri dishes were analyzed by the state health department, then turned over to the FBI as evidence, Onondaga County Health Commissioner Lloyd Novick said.
Yin's wife, Zheng, was charged by local police with child endangerment, and released Wednesday, jail deputy Linda Smith told CNN.
Zheng has been ordered to appear in court on Thursday.
Both Yin and Zheng had expired passports and visas, a Northwest Airlines customer service agent said in a deposition included in the criminal complaint.
Phytase improves nutrition because it increases the rate at which poultry, swine and calves digest the minerals in feed, and also reduces the pollutant phosphorous in their waste, Grace-Kobas said told CNN. U.S. farmers are increasingly under regulatory pressure to reduce the amount of phosphorus.
The bacteria could be of great commercial value for farmers in the United States and internationally, Grace-Kobas said. Cornell has applied for patent protection in the United States and other countries, including China.
Cornell's research was partly funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and conducted in coordination with the National Institutes of Health, according to Cornell documents. As a result, the bacteria and other substances that Yin allegedly stole were considered federal property.
James McClung, a graduate student in Cornell's Department of Animal Science who works in the same laboratory where Yin worked, was asked to evaluate the vials and petri dishes found in Yin's family luggage, the criminal complaint said. McClung identified two types of bacteria and cultures of yeast that incorporated the genes of Phytase.
Yin had been working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Animal Science in Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the complaint said. His one-year contract expired July 14, nine days after the letter allegedly written by Yin was found on a Cornell lab computer.
After the letter was found, Lei Xingen, who supervises Cornell's Phytase research, told Yin not to return to the lab and sent him a letter warning he must not take any research materials from the laboratory without explicit permission, take editorial credit for work done in the lab, nor benefit financially from the lab's findings.
"Our research ideas, plans, unpublished findings and methods [protocols] are all considered Cornell University intellectual properties," Lei wrote. "Any violations will result in similar legal charges ... [and] federal charges."
Yin was being held at the Justice Center in Syracuse, Smith said.
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