Stray vials of the deadly smallpox virus from the 1950s have
been discovered at a federal lab near Washington, US health
officials say, marking the second major lapse in a month in
the way the United States handles deadly pathogens.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that
workers discovered the vials in a cardboard box on July 1
while clearing out an old lab on the National Institutes of
Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland.
The six glass vials contained freeze-dried smallpox virus and
were sealed with melted glass. The vials appeared intact and
there is no evidence that lab workers or the general public
are at risk, said CDC spokesman Tom Skinner.
The mishandling of smallpox follows the CDC's recent mishap
in which the agency believed it may have transferred live
anthrax samples to a CDC lab that was not equipped to handle
them, potentially exposing dozens of employees to the
The CDC is testing the vials to see if the smallpox is viable
and could make someone sick, said Skinner. After those tests,
the samples will be destroyed, Skinner said.
Smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1977, but samples of the
pathogen are kept in two repositories for research purposes:
the CDC's facility in Atlanta and the State Research Centre
of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk, Russia. The two
repositories are monitored by the World Health Organization.
The CDC said it has notified WHO about the discovery. If the
specimens turn out to be viable, the CDC said it will invite
the WHO to witness the destruction of the smallpox samples.
Although there have been concerns smallpox could be used in
bioterrorism, the CDC says the chances of that occurring are
very low. Currently, the government has a stockpile
containing enough vaccine for every U.S. citizen.