Workers cleaning out an unsecured storeroom last week at the National Institutes of Health stumbled onto some vials that should not have been there — they were labeled 'variola' virus, or smallpox, the New York Times reports.
This deadliest of pathogens, which is supposed to be housed only at high-security labs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and in Russia, was simply stuck in six vials in an old Food and Drug Administration lab at NIH that workers were preparing to move over to FDA.
Luckily, the workers acted fast by putting the vials back in their boxes and taking them to NIH's biosafety level three lab, and then calling the CDC, FBI, and even local law enforcement to guard the samples, NPR's Geoff Brumfiel says. CDC says no one appears to have been exposed to the virus.
DNA testing has confirmed that the vials contain smallpox, but the CDC cannot confirm if they are still infectious. Brumfiel says the vials appear to date from the 1950s — smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 — but the CDC would not provide more info about how they ended up unsecured.
D. A. Henderson, who led efforts to eradicate the disease, guesses that someone just lost track of the samples.
"Virologists and microbiologists often put away certain specimens and kind of forget they have them," Henderson tells NPR.
CDC says it is going to do a more detailed DNA sequence analysis to find out if these samples could still be infectious, and they think that they could be. Most likely, Brumfiel says, CDC will end up destroying these samples when they are done.
Vanderbilt University infectious disease specialist William Schaffner tells the Times that after smallpox was eradicated every research lab was asked to "scour their facilities and submit all specimens for accounting and destruction." He says it is "curious beyond belief" that these samples ended up in a storeroom.