Smallpox Vials Discovered in Bethesda Laboratory

Smallpox virusSmallpox is rarely talked about these days.

But the disease, that was last diagnosed in the 70’s, according to the World Health Organization, was recently discovered in vials hidden away in a storage room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Employees discovered vials labeled “variola,” commonly known as smallpox, in an unused portion of a storage room in a Food and Drug Administration laboratory located at NIH as they prepared to move the lab to the FDA’s main campus.

The laboratory was among those transferred from NIH to the FDA in 1972, along with the responsibility for regulating biologic products.

The vials, which appear to date from the 1950’s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were secured in a CDC-registered select agent containment laboratory in Bethesda.

There is no evidence that any of the vials labeled variola has been breached, and onsite biosafety personnel have not identified any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public, say CDC officials.

With the help of federal and local law enforcement, the vials were transported on July 7 to the CBC’s high-containment facility in Atlanta where the vials were confirmed through testing to contain the presence of variola virus DNA.

Additional testing of the variola samples is under way to determine if the material in the vials is viable. Following the testing, which could take up to two weeks, the samples will be destroyed.

There are two official World Health Organization-designated repositories for smallpox which include the CDC in Atlanta and the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk, Russia. The 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. If viable smallpox is present, the 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.

An investigation into how these samples were prepared and stored in the laboratory is currently underway.

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Valerie Bonk

About Valerie Bonk

Valerie Bonk is a multimedia reporter and community engagement specialist with Montgomery Community Media (MCM).


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