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Forgotten vials of smallpox rediscovered in old CDC storeroom

Child with smallpox taken in Bangledesh in 1973.
CDC public domain

CDC officials were shocked to discover six sealed vials of the deadly smallpox virus in a forgotten cardboard box while cleaning out an old storeroom at a research center near Washington DC last week. It has yet to be determined how they got there, as well as whether the viruses are still potent or dead.

Considered one of the world’s deadliest contagens, the original strain is believed to hace evolved from a rodent virus between 68,000 and 16,000 years ago, and spread throughout the world. Although it was not eradicated until 1980, the earliest documented treatment to prevent the disease involved a “nasal infusion of powdered smallpox scabs” used to inoculate people in India around 1000 BC. Later inoculations were recorded in the 10th Dynasty, and were practiced widely during the Ming Dynasty during the 16th Century.
The last cases of smallpox in the world occurred in an outbreak of two cases as recently as 1978.

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that all remaining samples of the virus held in laboratories be destroyed no later than December 30, 1993, save for two emergency stockpiles, one in the United States at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, GA, and the other at the State Research Center of Viriology and Biotechnology VECTOR in Koltsovo, Russia, objections by both countries, which argued that the stocks could be “useful in developing new vaccines, antiviral drugs, and diagnostic tests;[forced the date to be pushed back several times, until finally, the World Health Assembly agreed to allow temporary retention of the variola virus in 2002. In the meantime, there has been growing opinion that the stockpiles are no longer needed to respond to any future smallpox outbreaks.

In the meantime, the current discovery of forgotten samples at the CDC is being investigated by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the FBI.

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