Well, this is disconcerting. According to an announcement today from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), vials of the smallpox virus were found in a lab in Maryland that was not only unapproved to be handling the live pathogens — it was unequipped.
Though we've eradicated smallpox, the disease is so wildly infectious that it qualifies as a bioterrorism threat, meaning we keep it around just in case we ever need a new vaccine. What's more, only two labs in the entire world are legally permitted to handle the stuff: The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's Atlanta headquarters and the VECTOR Institute in Russia. In other words, not the NIH's Bethesda, Maryland campus.
While it's currently unclear how long these deadly smallpox vials (which violate at 35-year-old international agreement) have been hiding out, according to CDC spokesman Tom Skinner, the boxes holding them may date back to the 1950s. So how exactly are we just now coming across the highly illicit vials? According to ABC News:
Scientists found six freeze-dried vials labelled as containing variola — the virus that causes smallpox — and 10 other vials with unclear labelling information in a cold storage room that is owned by the Food and Drug Administration on the NIH's Bethesda campus while preparing for the laboratory's upcoming move to FDA's main campus, according to Dr. Steven Monroe, who directs the CDC's division of high consequence pathogens and pathology.
The vials are currently being tested to see if any of the contents are still infectious, after which they will all be destroyed. Hopefully, that will be the last we see of any misplaced smallpox.
But according to Dr. Steven Monroe, who directs the CDC's division of high consequence pathogens and pathology, "We can't say with 100 per cent certainty there are no other vials like this." Great. [ABC News]
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