ATLANTA – A government scientist cleaning out an old storage room at a research center near Washington made a startling discovery last week – decades-old vials of smallpox packed away and forgotten in a cardboard box.
The six glass vials were intact and sealed, and scientists have yet to establish whether the virus is dead or alive, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.
Still, the find was disturbing because for decades after smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, world health authorities said the only known samples left were safely stored in super-secure laboratories in Atlanta and in Russia.
Officials said this is the first time in the U.S. that unaccounted-for smallpox has been discovered. At least one leading scientist raised the possibility that there are more such vials out there around the world.
The CDC and the FBI are investigating.
It was the second recent incident in which a U.S. government health agency appeared to have mishandled a highly dangerous germ. Last month, scores of CDC employees in Atlanta were feared exposed to anthrax because of a laboratory safety lapse. The CDC began giving them antibiotics as a precaution.
The freeze-dried smallpox samples were found in a building at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, that has been used by the Food and Drug Administration since 1972, according to the CDC.
The scientist was cleaning out a cold room between two laboratories on July 1 when he made the discovery, FDA officials said.
Officials said labeling indicated the smallpox had been put in the vials in the 1950s. But they said it’s not clear how long the vials had been in the building, which did not open until the 1960s.
No one has been infected, and no smallpox contamination was found in the building.
Smallpox can be deadly even after it is freeze-dried, but the virus usually has to be kept cold to remain alive and dangerous.
In an interview Tuesday, a CDC official said he believed the vials were stored for many years at room temperature, which would suggest the samples are dead. But FDA officials said later in the day that the smallpox was in cold storage for decades.
“We don’t yet know if it’s live and infectious,” said Stephan Monroe, deputy director of the CDC center that handles highly dangerous infectious agents.
The samples were rushed under FBI protection to the CDC in Atlanta for testing, which could take a few weeks. After that, they will be destroyed.
Peter Marks, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Research and Evaluation, said the discovery was unexpected but not a total shock. He added, however, that “no one’s denying we should have done a better job cleaning out what was there.”
Smallpox was one of the most lethal diseases in history. For centuries, it killed about one-third of the people it infected, and left most survivors with deep scars on their faces from the pus-filled lesions.