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Strange news: Vials of smallpox from 1950s located in government storeroom

Here's a scene with which you're probably all too familiar. Government employees cleaning out an unused storeroom find vials of a substance. They lean in, read the label. Gasp! Virus X! One of the vials breaks and now the whole compound has been infected and the zombie apocalypse is nigh! Sounds like the stuff of fiction, right? Well, that scenario almost played out in real time for a group of people rummaging through an FDA facility.

A patient with smallpox
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The CDC reported on Tuesday that government employees located several vials of smallpox in an unused storage room as they were getting ready to move the lab. The space was once used by the National Institutes for Health, but was handed over to the FDA in 1972.

There are a few significant points here. Though smallpox was declared eradicated in the 1980s, it is still responsible for an incredible amount of deaths worldwide. You’d think something as powerful as that would be stored in a location slightly more formal than a storeroom, with no precautions against the vials breaking.

Once the virus was determined to be eradicated, all remaining samples were ordered to be sent either to Atlanta, or to Russia by an international agreement. Following an order so extreme, finding the virus outside of either of those two locations seems incredibly dangerous. The Washington Post notes that this is the first time the virus has been found outside of either of those locations following the international agreement.

As a virus that causes a disease with no cure, finding the virus out in the open is an alarming discovery in itself. As the director of the Center for infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota notes to the Washington Post, “It was considered one of the worst things that could happen to a community to have a smallpox outbreak”.

After the vials were found, they were immediately put into a containment lab and handed over to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention on July 1. It will take the CDC two weeks to tell if the vials from the 1950s contained a live version of the virus or not. After such time, the vials will be destroyed.