Scientists at the Bethesda campus of the National Institutes of Health made a startling discovery last week, finding a forgotten sample of one of the world’s deadliest diseases inside a cardboard box in an unused storage room.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that a scientist discovered six vials labeled “variola,” a variant of smallpox, on July 1 in an unused portion of the Food and Drug Administration’s laboratory on the NIH campus.
The FDA employee uncovered the vials while preparing to move the laboratory to the FDA’s main campus. Officials said there was no evidence the vials containing the highly contagious and often fatal disease had broken or that anyone on site was exposed. But the discovery was considered extremely unusual, given that the only other known samples of smallpox are held for research purposes in secure labs in the United States and Russia.
Alongside the six smallpox vials, which were found sealed, intact and undisturbed, were 10 other vials that were not clearly labeled, CDC spokesman Benjamin Haynes said.
The samples from the six variola vials were confirmed to contain the smallpox virus, and officials plan to destroy the samples. The other samples were not found to contain the disease.
The vials were transported to the CDC’s high-containment facility in Atlanta, one of only two World Health Organization-designated smallpox repositories in the world under an international pact. The other site is the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Novosibirsk, Russia. The World Health Organization periodically inspects both sites for safety and security.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday said the discovery raises questions about how dangerous pathogens are monitored.
“I will ask the Secretary of Health and Human Services to report to the committee the results of the department’s investigation — whether the forgotten vials presented any danger and what steps should be taken to prevent similar occurrences,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and ranking member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee had been investigating whether employees were exposed to anthrax at the CDC’s Atlanta facility in June, so the smallpox incident further highlights the need for adequate oversight, a committee aide said.
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a 2011 op-ed in The New York Times said it was “quite possible that undisclosed or forgotten stocks exist.” The comments were made as an argument against destroying the U.S.- and Russian-held samples in case a vaccine should be required in the face of another outbreak.
An investigation is underway to determine how the vials were prepared and stored at the FDA facility, the CDC said.
According to the CDC, the disease is now eradicated after a successful worldwide vaccination program, with the last case of smallpox in the United States occurring in 1949 and the last naturally occurring case in the world in Somalia in 1977.
The disease, for which there is no cure, killed millions of people over thousands of years of recorded history before it was officially wiped off the globe after an extensive vaccination campaign.