Vast Majority of NIH Workers Weren’t Notified About Smallpox Discovery

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July 10, 2014, 10:25 a.m.

Work­ers at a fed­er­al health site were not im­me­di­ately no­ti­fied when it was learned last week that vi­als con­tain­ing small­pox had been found on cam­pus.

Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health of­fi­cials in­formed Mary­land state and Mont­gomery County of­fi­cials on Tues­day that vi­als con­tain­ing ap­par­ent dec­ades-old samples of the leth­al vari­ola vir­us were dis­covered in­side an old Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing on the NIH cam­pus in Beth­esda, Md. What they did not do was send a gen­er­al alert to the ap­prox­im­ately 18,000 em­ploy­ees at the re­search cam­pus that day, the Wash­ing­ton Post re­por­ted on Thursday.

“I think the re­spons­ible thing to do would have been to in­form us without us hav­ing to find out through the me­dia,” an an­onym­ous sci­ent­ist, who works at the Beth­esda cam­pus, told the news­pa­per.

A NIH spokes­wo­man said the de­cision was made not to im­me­di­ately in­form agency em­ploy­ees about the dis­cov­ery of the small­pox vi­als be­cause they had been se­cured and did not pose a health threat.

The Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which op­er­ates cam­pus Build­ing 29A where the vi­als were dis­covered on Ju­ly 1, did alert some of its per­son­nel about the find. Some 12 per­son­nel work­ing in next-door labor­at­or­ies were no­ti­fied about the vi­als on Ju­ly 2.

The food safety agency has had re­spons­ib­il­ity for Build­ing 29A since 1972. The con­tain­ers were found as work­ers were clean­ing out the build­ing in pre­par­a­tion for a move to the agency’s prin­cip­al cam­pus in White Oak, Md.

Three years ago, an out­break of a deadly dis­ease agent that has no known cure oc­curred at an NIH clin­ic­al cen­ter. That in­cid­ent was not re­vealed for some months, though U.S. of­fi­cials prom­ised in the fu­ture to more quickly alert state and loc­al of­fi­cials if an­oth­er dan­ger­ous out­break oc­curs even if it did not pose a clear pub­lic health risk.

The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion now have cus­tody of the small­pox vi­als, which are at the agency’s At­lanta headquar­ters. Of­fi­cials said the vi­als tested pos­it­ive for the pres­ence of vari­ola vir­us, though fur­ther test­ing is needed to know if the vir­us is still act­ive.

An email alert was sent to CDC em­ploy­ees and con­tract­ors Tues­day around the time that news or­gan­iz­a­tions were also in­formed of the in­cid­ent.

Small­pox was de­clared erad­ic­ated from nature by the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion in 1980. Oth­er than the vi­als dis­covered last week, the only known vir­us samples to still ex­ist are held in labor­at­or­ies in At­lanta and Rus­sia.

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