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NIH scientists find smallpox vials from 1950s in unused storage area

Smallpox virus
Smallpox virus
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health recently found vials labeled “variola” in an unused storage area at a Food and Drug Administration laboratory in Bethesda, MD. The NIH notified the Centers for Disease Control immediately that it had found the vials. Variola is the scientific name for smallpox.

According to a statement released by the CDC, the laboratory was moved from the NIH to the FDA in 1972, along with the responsibility for regulating its biologic products. (The FDA has operated laboratories located on the NIH campus since that time.) Scientists discovered the vials while preparing for the laboratory’s move to the FDA’s main campus.

The CDC explains that the vials appear to date from the 1950s. When found, the vials were immediately secured in a special “CDC-registered select agent containment laboratory” in Bethesda.

There is no evidence that any of the vials labeled variola were leaking or posed a danger, according to the CDC. Biosafety personnel have not found any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public.

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, the CDC reports. The CDC lab confirmed the vials contained DNA from the smallpox virus, but additional testing is underway to determine if the material in the vials could actually be cultured to grow the virus. This testing could take up to two weeks, at which time the samples will be destroyed, the CDC notes.

There are two official World Health Organization (WHO)-designated repositories for smallpox: the CDC in Atlanta, and the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Novosibirsk, Russia. WHO oversees the inspection of these smallpox facilities and conducts periodic reviews to certify the repositories for safety and security.

CDC has notified WHO about the discovery, and if actual smallpox is present, WHO will be invited to witness the destruction of these smallpox materials. This has been done before when smallpox samples have been found outside of the two official repositories.

Smallpox was one of the world’s most devastating diseases known to man, transmitted from person to person during close contact with infected people. It caused fever, headache, sores, and painful pustules to form on the body and in the mouth, throat, and nose. WHO reports that 30 percent of people who got smallpox died, and some were blinded. It was eradicated in 1980 after a massive global immunization campaign led by WHO.

Some estimates indicate more than 300 million people died of smallpox during the 20th century alone.

The last known natural case of smallpox was in Somalia in 1977, according to WHO. Since then, the only known cases were caused by a laboratory accident in 1978 in Birmingham, England, which killed one person and caused a limited outbreak.

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