Forgotten Smallpox Vials Found in Unused Storage Room at Maryland NIH Lab


Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the discovery of  forgotten vials containing the smallpox virus in an unused cold storage room at the National Institutes of Health, located in Bethesda, Maryland. Smallpox is known as one of the most deadly diseases in human history. As such, much like anthrax, it is generally feared that it could be used to commit bioterrorism were it to fall into the wrong hands.

The 16 samples of the deadly disease, packaged in freeze-dried vials of which six indicated that they contained variola, the virus that causes smallpox, were discovered in a Food and Drug Administration lab by scientists, who were preparing for a move to the main campus of the FDA, located in Silver Spring, Md. The samples were located in a cardboard container with index cards and cotton balls packed inside to keep them from moving within the box.

The CDC statement assures that no health risk exists to the public or to NIH staff from the smallpox vials discovered, about which the NIH alerted the CDC on July 1. The vials are thought to have been collected and stored during the 1950s. Upon their discovery, they were sent on Monday via government air transport to be secured within a high-containment lab at the CDC in Atlanta. Genetic testing was conducted overnight in order to confirm that the substance within the vials was, in fact, smallpox. Additional testing by the CDC, which could take as long as two weeks, will be necessary in order to determine if the smallpox is still a threat and could still be spread. When all testing has been completed, the CDC will destroy all remaining smallpox. Dr. Steven Monroe, director of the CDC’s High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology Division, says of smallpox that “It’s pretty hardy as viruses go, particularly in the freeze-dried state,” adding, “That could certainly prolong viability.”

Currently there exist two storage facilities designated by WHO to keep smallpox. In addition to the Atlanta site of the CDC, the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Novosibirsk, Russia, is also a designated facility. Both sites are overseen by WHO, who does inspections to certify the security and safety of their locations. The CDC alerted WHO to the discovery of the smallpox as well as issued an invitation to the organization to assist in their investigation as to how the smallpox arrived and went undiscovered in Bethesda. WHO will also be on hand to witness any necessary destruction of the smallpox, which is procedure if the disease is found in sites other than the two official storage locations.

The investigation will be conducted jointly by WHO, the CDC Division of Select Agents and Toxins, and the FBI. Because the smallpox was in an unregulated location, they are in violation of the 1979 international agreement naming the CDC and VECTOR as the only locations in the world authorized to store smallpox. The agreement allowed for the continued study of the virus while keeping its deadly effects from the population. The recent discovery is the first time that samples had been discovered unaccounted for outside of the approved locations.

Smallpox is a deadly disease that killed approximately one-third of those it infected for what is believed to be at least 3,000 years.  Vaccines against smallpox were success in completely eradicating the disease in 1980.

By Jennifer Pfalz

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