U.S. Locks Down Smallpox Vials Found Forgotten in Closet

Emergency personnel participate in a 2003 terrorism drill in Seattle. Forgotten vials of smallpox have been found at a U.S. government facility in Bethesda, Md.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
July 8, 2014, 11:20 a.m.

Small­pox, an erad­ic­ated scourge feared for its weapons po­ten­tial, has turned up in for­got­ten vi­als at a U.S. gov­ern­ment fa­cil­ity.

Work­ers dis­covered con­tain­ers of the deadly vir­us as they emp­tied out a Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion branch of­fice at the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health cam­pus in Beth­esda, Md., the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion an­nounced on Tues­day. Bar­ring any secret stock­pile, the last small­pox in ex­ist­ence was thought to be held at tightly guarded fa­cil­it­ies in At­lanta and Nov­os­ibirsk, Rus­sia.

“The vi­als ap­pear to date from the 1950s,” ac­cord­ing to a CDC state­ment. “Upon dis­cov­ery, the vi­als were im­me­di­ately se­cured in a CDC-re­gistered se­lect agent con­tain­ment labor­at­ory in Beth­esda.”

“There is no evid­ence that any of the vi­als … has been breached, and on-site biosafety per­son­nel have not iden­ti­fied any in­fec­tious ex­pos­ure risk to lab work­ers or the pub­lic,” the press re­lease says. “Late on Ju­ly 7, the vi­als were trans­por­ted safely and se­curely with the as­sist­ance of fed­er­al and loc­al law en­force­ment agen­cies to CDC’s high-con­tain­ment fa­cil­ity in At­lanta.”

Cen­ter ana­lysts con­firmed the pres­ence of small­pox DNA in the vi­als, and fur­ther tests are ex­pec­ted to de­term­ine if the ma­ter­i­al could still have caused in­fec­tion.

“This test­ing could take up to 2 weeks. After com­ple­tion of this test­ing, the samples will be des­troyed,” the agency said.

“CDC has no­ti­fied [the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion] about the dis­cov­ery, and WHO has been in­vited to par­ti­cip­ate in the in­vest­ig­a­tion. If vi­able small­pox is present, WHO will be in­vited to wit­ness the de­struc­tion of these small­pox ma­ter­i­als, as has been the pre­ced­ent for oth­er cases where small­pox samples have been found out­side of the two of­fi­cial re­pos­it­or­ies.”

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