Vials of smallpox have been found in an unused storage room at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda.
On July 1, NIH officials notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the discovery in a Food and Drug Administration laboratory at the campus.
The laboratory was among those transferred from NIH to the FDA in 1972, along with the responsibility for regulating biologic products, according to a news release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The FDA has operated the labs at NIH since then. Scientists discovered the vials while preparing for the lab’s move to the FDA’s main campus in White Oak.
After they were found, the vials, which apparently date from the 1950s, were secured in a containment lab at NIH. There is no evidence that any vials were breached, and personnel have not identified any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public, the CDC said. The CDC did not indicate how many vials were found.
Late Monday, the vials were taken to the CDC’s high-containment facility in Atlanta. Testing confirmed the presence of the DNA of smallpox virus, also called variola. More testing is being conducted to see if the material is viable and can grow in a tissue culture. Then, the samples will be destroyed, the CDC said.
The CDC is one of two official World Health Organization-designated repositories for smallpox; the other is in Novosibirsk, Russia. The international agency oversees the inspection of these smallpox facilities and conducts periodic reviews to certify the repositories for safety and security. WHO has been invited to participate in the CDC’s investigation.
The FBI and other authorities are investigating how these smallpox samples were originally prepared, then stored in the FDA laboratory.
Smallpox was one of the world’s most devastating diseases, according to WHO’s website. It was declared eradicated in 1980 following a global immunization campaign led by WHO.
The last known natural case was in Somalia in 1977. Since then, the only known cases were caused by a laboratory accident in 1978 in Birmingham, U.K., which killed one person and caused a limited outbreak, according to WHO.