updated 7/19/2005 8:55:51 PM ET 2005-07-20T00:55:51

A pet hamster blamed for spreading a virus that killed three transplant patients in April has been traced to an Ohio distribution center that supplies hamsters to pet stores throughout the East Coast, officials said Tuesday.

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State and federal investigators quarantined the distribution center Monday and plan to test the animals for the virus in an effort to trace its origin.

“We don’t know whether the disease is there or not,” said LeeAnne Mizer, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. “It’s a potential threat.”

The hamster had lymphocytic choriomeningitis, or LCMV, a virus that usually causes little or no illness in healthy people but can be deadly for those with weak immune systems.

It was shipped to a Warwick, R.I., pet store, where it was purchased for a woman shortly before she died this spring. The woman’s death wasn’t related to the virus, but three transplant patients who received a kidney, lungs and liver from the woman all developed flu-like symptoms and died within weeks.

Organs are routinely tested for many viruses but there is no commercial test for LCMV.

After the deaths, hamsters, mice and guinea pigs from the Rhode Island store were euthanized and sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing. The CDC is also overseeing the tests on animals from the Ohio distribution center and hopes to have results within a week, CDC spokesman Dave Daigle said.

“We’d like to find out how far this goes back,” Daigle said. “Where did this begin?”

The distribution center has an inventory of about 4,000 small pets that include mice, rats and guinea pigs. The animals are bred elsewhere, Mizer said.

No one at Mid-South Distributors of Norwich, Ohio, was immediately available to comment Tuesday.

Federal health officials have warned about such pets transmitting viruses and urge owners to wash after handling them and wear gloves when cleaning their cages. Two years ago, pet prairie dogs infected dozens of people with monkeypox, a disease previously seen only in Africa. The outbreak was blamed on a Gambian rat that infected prairie dogs at an exotic pet dealer in Illinois.

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