Smallpox Discovered in Abandoned 1950s Lab Vials, U.S. Says

Jul 08, 2014 2:34 pm ET

July 8 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. health officials are investigating whether old vials found in a laboratory storeroom contain live smallpox virus, one of the most dangerous diseases known to man, and how they came to be abandoned, the government said.

The vials, dating from the 1950s, were found July 1 as workers prepared to move a Food and Drug Administration laboratory from Bethesda, Maryland, to the agency’s main campus in Silver Spring, Maryland. Labeled “variola,” the genus name for the virus, the vials were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta where they tested positive for smallpox DNA, the agency said today in a statement.

Except for repositories at the CDC and a government lab in Russia, the virus is believed to be eliminated worldwide. The discovery in a storage room at the National Institutes of Health campus follows an incident at the CDC last month when scientists were inadvertently exposed to live anthrax.

The CDC “is actively investigating the history of how these samples were originally prepared and subsequently stored in the FDA laboratory,” the agency said in a statement.

Tests are under way to determine if the viruses in the vials are alive. Afterward, the samples will be destroyed, the CDC said in its statement.

The last U.S. case of smallpox occurred in 1949 and the last case in the world was in Somalia in 1972, when routine vaccination ended. The U.S. maintains a stockpile of vaccine sufficient to inoculate every American in the event of an outbreak or an attack employing the virus, according to the CDC.