The Centers for Disease Control announced Tuesday that government employees found old vials labeled “variola,” better known as smallpox, in an unused portion of an FDA lab in the Beltway area — a remarkable and unusual discovery because an international pact says smallpox samples may only be held at labs in Atlanta and Russia.
The National Institutes of Health reported the July 1 discovery to the appropriate division of the CDC. Employees found the vials in a storage room at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, while preparing to move the lab from the site to the FDA’s main campus.
CDC officials said the vials, which appear to be from the 1950s, were secured and transported Monday to the CDC’s containment facility in Atlanta. It did not appear as though the vials had been breached or that lab workers or the public were at risk.
Smallpox was eradicated last century after a worldwide vaccination program, with the last U.S. case occurring in 1949, according to the CDC. It is a “serious, contagious and sometimes fatal” infectious disease that produces extensive rash and fever.
Testing confirmed the presence of variola virus DNA in the Bethesda vials, but additional tests are needed to see if the material is viable and could grow tissue in culture.
Once that is completed, the samples will be destroyed, according to the CDC.
The World Health Organization periodically inspects both sites for safety and security.
“If viable smallpox is present, WHO will be invited to witness the destruction of these smallpox materials, as has been the precedent for other cases where smallpox samples have been found outside of the two official repositories,” according to the CDC’s statement.
Both the CDC and FBI are investigating how the vials ended up at the FDA lab.