Scientists Just Found Stray Vials of Smallpox From the 1950s

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National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
July 8, 2014, 10:17 a.m.

If there’s one thing you gen­er­ally want to keep tabs on, it’s a deadly vir­us that has killed an es­tim­ated 300 mil­lion people in the 20th cen­tury alone.

But a few vi­als of small­pox, which was of­fi­cially de­clared erad­ic­ated world­wide in 1979, man­aged to go un­noticed for dec­ades in a stor­age room, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion on Tues­day.

On Ju­ly 1, of­fi­cials from the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health told the CDC’s Di­vi­sion of Se­lect Agents and Tox­ins that em­ploy­ees had dis­covered vi­als labeled “vari­ola,” the Lat­in name of small­pox, on the NIH’s Beth­esda cam­pus in Mary­land. The samples, which ap­pear to be from the 1950s, were found in an un­used sec­tion of a stor­age room in a Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion labor­at­ory.

Sci­ent­ists stumbled upon the vi­als as they prepped for the labor­at­ory’s move to the FDA’s main cam­pus in Sil­ver Spring, Md. The FDA has op­er­ated this labor­at­ory, among oth­ers, on NIH’s cam­pus since 1972.

The vi­als were im­me­di­ately rushed to a CDC-re­gistered agent-con­tain­ment labor­at­ory in Beth­esda. They were trans­por­ted to a CDC high-con­tain­ment fa­cil­ity in At­lanta on Thursday, ac­com­pan­ied by fed­er­al and loc­al law-en­force­ment agen­cies and, we hope, stored in a very large box. In the next two weeks, sci­ent­ists will test the small­pox vir­us in­side the vi­als to de­term­ine wheth­er it’s vi­able — that is, wheth­er it can grow in a petri dish of tis­sue cul­ture. After that, all of the vi­als will be des­troyed.

Only two samples of the small­pox dis­ease re­main in the world. One is held at CDC headquar­ters in At­lanta, and the oth­er at the State Re­search Centre of Vir­o­logy and Bi­o­tech­no­logy in Nov­os­ibirsk, Rus­sia. More than 30 years after erad­ic­a­tion, the de­bate over wheth­er these samples should still ex­ist con­tin­ues. Op­pon­ents of con­tin­ued stor­age say there’s no real reas­on to hang onto the clearly haz­ard­ous samples. Why keep the risk alive? Sup­port­ers of stor­age say the samples could be use­ful in fur­ther re­search, in case the vir­us still ex­ists else­where and re­sur­faces as a bio­lo­gic­al weapon.

The last med­ic­al case of small­pox in the United States was in 1949.

Fol­low­ing the dis­cov­ery in Mary­land, the CDC has in­vited the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion, which over­sees the se­cur­ity of ex­ist­ing small­pox re­pos­it­or­ies, in­to its in­vest­ig­a­tion of the samples. The CDC’s Di­vi­sion of Se­lect Agents and Tox­ins and the FBI are look­ing in­to how these samples got there. May we sug­gest look­ing at the in­tern first?

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