We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

A vial of smallpox vaccine. AP/Press Association Images
drug tests

FBI investigating how vials of contagious smallpox were left in lab

The White House has been briefed on the incident, which came to public attention yesterday.

FEDERAL INVESTIGATORS ARE probing how vials of smallpox made their way into a storage room at a Food and Drug Administration lab near the US capital.

Smallpox is a highly contagious and sometimes fatal disease that is estimated to have killed some 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

Vials found in box

Though there is no treatment for smallpox, it has been eradicated after a worldwide vaccination program. The last US case was in 1949; the last global case was in 1977 in Somalia.

The vials were labeled “variola,” another name for smallpox, and appear to date from the 1950s, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.

They were found in an unused portion of a storeroom in an FDA laboratory, located on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

There is no evidence that the vials had been opened, and “onsite biosafety personnel have not identified any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public,” the CDC said.

The vials have been moved to a high-security lab at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

Initial tests came back positive for smallpox, and further testing will be done to determine if it is viable, or able to grow in tissue culture.

“This testing could take up to two weeks. After completion of this testing, the samples will be destroyed,” the CDC said.

Will be destroyed

“If viable smallpox is present, the World Health Organisation 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 international agreements, only two places in the world are authorised to keep samples of smallpox: the CDC in Atlanta and the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Novosibirsk, Russia.

Global stockpiles of smallpox still exist so that researchers can study them for vaccines and potential drug treatments in case another outbreak were to occur.

The CDC has warned of “heightened concern that the variola virus might be used as an agent of bioterrorism,” particularly in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In its statement today, the CDC said it was notified by the NIH of the discovery on July 1, when workers were preparing to move the FDA lab from the NIH to the FDA’s main campus.

The CDC Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT) and the FBI are investigating how the vials got there.

A White House official said that officials in the administration, including in the National Security Council, had been briefed on the incident.

Discovery of the smallpox vials came just weeks after the CDC in Atlanta announced that 80 or more workers may have been accidentally exposed to anthrax.

- © AFP, 2014

Read: Forgotten smallpox vials discovered in US research centre>

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.