Forgotten Vials of Smallpox Found in Government Lab

Friday, July 11, 2014
Smallpox virus

Federal health officials were surprised to learn recently that several vials containing the deadly smallpox virus were just sitting in a vacant government laboratory outside Washington, DC.


The vials were discovered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which had turned the lab at its Bethesda, Maryland facility over to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more than 40 years ago.


The 1972 transfer included “biologic products” that were in the lab at the time the FDA took control.


NIH officials insisted the FDA had used the lab since then. But a statement released by the agency did not reveal when the portion of the lab’s storage room where the virus was stored became “unused.”


Scientists made the discovery while beginning to move the lab’s contents to the FDA’s main campus.


Upon finding the vials, NIH contacted the Division of Select Agents and Toxins (pdf) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to take control of the “variola” (aka smallpox), which were first produced in the 1950s.


“There is no evidence that any of the vials labeled variola has been breached, and onsite biosafety personnel have not identified any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public,” the NIH said.


The vials are now at the CDC’s “high-containment facility” in Atlanta, which is one of only two locations in the world authorized under international law to keep smallpox samples. The second location is the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Novosibirsk, Russia.


The World Health Organization (WHO) was notified and invited to participate in the investigation. Before being destroyed, the samples will be tested over a period of two weeks to see if they are viable. If they are, WHO will be present to witness their destruction.


The virus was officially eradicated 44 years ago following a global public health campaign. At that time, “every single research lab in the world was asked to scour their facilities and submit all specimens for accounting and destruction,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told The New York Times.


It “seems curious beyond belief” that the smallpox vials were now found in an abandoned storeroom, he added.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

CDC Media Statement on Newly Discovered Smallpox Specimens (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Six Vials of Smallpox Discovered in Laboratory Near Washington (by Henry Fountain, New York Times)

Why is Obama Administration Spending $433 Million on Experimental Smallpox Drug When Last Case was in 1949? (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


Leave a comment