An inventory check led to the discovery of six vials of smallpox that were decades old.
As FDA laboratories at the National Institutes of Health prepared for a move from their Bethesda campus to the Silver Spring campus, a scientist taking inventory and cleaning out a lab storage room came across a box that contained vials of the smallpox virus.
The storage room had been kept at 40 degrees for several cardboard boxes that contained many glass vials, all sealed with melted glass, which causes officials to believe these vials date back to the 1950's. Most of these boxes were labeled "flu virus," however one box that was insulated with cotton material was marked "variola," also known as smallpox.
The sixteen vials were immediately sent to Atlanta to be tested and secured at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Six of the sixteen vials contained smallpox DNA.
There are only two facilities in the world that allow samples of smallpox--the CDC and a virology center located in Novosibirsk, Russia. This raises a higher concern of how these vials were left in a storage facility. An FDA spokeswoman stated that the NIH was home to research labs that focused on vaccines and until vaccination regulation authority was given to the FDA in 1972, it was originally through the NIH.
As the situation is being investigated, there are speculations that before the virus was eliminated, a scientist involved in smallpox research could have easily stored and left the boxes to sit for decades until now.
All storage areas on the NIH campus have been searched thoroughly for any other materials that could be a concern to public health and nothing else has been discovered. The FDA is following up this incident with an examination and revision of policies and procedures that affect the handling of biological specimens.
This seems to be an appropriate action as this smallpox discovery is the second incident by a federal health agency in a very short period. Last month, scientists at the CDC did not follow proper procedures to inactivate samples of bacteria. Once they were transferred to labs that were not able to handle the live bacteria, there was a release of the anthrax virus. The lapse in safety led to immediate vaccinations for 84 employees and even antibiotics just to be safe. The lab director at the time was also reassigned.
Luckily, this discovery of smallpox was handled quickly and there was no accidental release of the virus. Smallpox is considered one of the most deadly diseases in the twentieth century, causing approximately 300 million deaths. The last known case of smallpox was in 1978.
With the surprising find and the revision of FDA policies, ideally this kind of situation can be avoided in the future. And if there are more cardboard boxes filled with viruses sitting in a freezer somewhere, hopefully they will be discovered and taken care of sooner rather than later.