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.