For­got­ten vials of small­pox found in stor­age room

The Covington News - - THE WIRE -

AT­LANTA (AP) — 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.”

In at least one other such episode, vials of small­pox were found at the bot­tom of a freezer in an East­ern Euro­pean coun­try in the 1990s, ac­cord­ing to Dr. David Hey­mann, a for­mer World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion of­fi­cial who is now a pro­fes­sor at the Lon­don School of Hy­giene and Trop­i­cal Medicine.

Hey­mann said that when small­pox sam­ples were gath­ered up for de­struc­tion decades ago, re­quests went out to min­is­ters of health to col­lect all vials.

“As far as I know, there was never a con­fir­ma­tion they had checked in with all groups who could have had the virus,” he said.

Dr. Don­ald “D.A.” Hen­der­son, who led the WHO small­pox-erad­i­ca­tion ef­fort and is now a pro­fes­sor at the Cen­ter for Health Se­cu­rity at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh, said it is highly un­likely more such stashes will be dis­cov­ered. But he con­ceded “things were pretty ca­sual” in the 1950s.

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