Smallpox, like other vials of other deadly diseases and vaccines, are safely stored under lock and key at government facilities, right? Apparently not.
Long forgotten vials of the smallpox virus have been found in an unsecured government lab storage room in the Washington, D.C., area. Workers cleaning out the old research center storage room were quite shocked when they stumbled across several old vials of smallpox inside a cardboard box.
Even more shocking: At least two of the six vials were still alive, contrary to what government officials initially said. Typically, smallpox needs to be stored cold for it be stay alive, and these were kept at room temperature for an unknown amount of time.
It’s the latest embarrassing blunder for the CDC. Earlier in July it was learned CDC officials had accidentally shipped dangerous bird flu samples – and not a weaker form of the flu — to a lab outside of the CDC. And in June, an incident described as a “safety lapse” at the CDC in Atlanta left dozens of staffers potentially exposed to anthrax.
Smallpox was among the most deadly viruses in history and killed approximately one-third of the people infected. Queen Mary II of England was a smallpox victim. Those who did survive the disease were left with “pus-filled lesions” and deep scarring. It spreads rapidly and through the air.
Smallpox was declared eradicated during the 1980s. Government officials claim it’s the first time that unaccounted-for samples of smallpox were found.
Peter Marks, the deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Research and Evaluation, said that while the discovery of the smallpox vials was “unexpected,” the revelation did not come as a “total shock.”
“No one’s denying we should have done a better job cleaning out what was there,” Marks said.
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The inability to track and secure vials of deadly viruses has caused alarm for many Americans. What if a terrorist group staged break-ins at government facilities, or paid or threatened staffers at storage centers to give them a sample?
All six vials of freeze-dried virus were sealed with melted glass and still intact. Although the deadly virus inside the vials is most likely dead, the discovery is still being deemed as disturbing due to the lack of safety protocol involved in the storage method. Government officials and world health authorities had believed the only samples of smallpox were stored in “super secure” labs in Atlanta and Russia.
The National Institutes of Health campus at Bethesda, Maryland, has been used by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1972. Government officials reportedly believe that the smallpox vials may have been stored at the site since the 1950s, but no records have been located to indicate the placement history of them.
So far, no smallpox cases have been presented or contamination found inside the building.
It’s not the first time smallpox was found in vials where it should not have been. During the 1990s vials of smallpox were found in the bottom of a freezer in an “Eastern European” country, according to former World Health Organization staffer Dr. David Heymann. Heymann is a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The doctor also noted that all known smallpox samples were collected for destruction “decades ago” after requests to do so were issued to ministers of health around the world.
“As far as I know, there was never a confirmation they had checked in with all groups who could have had the virus,” he said.
Once the smallpox testing is complete, the CDC will reportedly destroy all six of the smallpox vials under the supervision of the World Health Organization.
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