National Institutes of Health workers preparing to move a lab in Bethesda, Md., found an unwelcome surprise in a storage room this month: vials of smallpox.
There is no evidence that any of the vials was breached, and no lab workers or members of the public were exposed to the infectious and potentially deadly virus, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its announcement Tuesday.
The vials labeled variola — a name for the smallpox virus — were found July 1 “in an unused portion of a storage room” and seem to date to the 1950s, the CDC said. They were immediately put into a containment lab, then moved Monday to the CDC’s containment facility in Atlanta, it said.
The samples are being tested to see whether any of them are viable — that is, can grow — and will then be destroyed, the CDC said.
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The most common type of smallpox is serious, contagious and frequently fatal, with about 30 percent of cases resulting in death, according to the CDC. Luckily, the disease was declared eradicated in 1980 after a worldwide vaccination program.
The last U.S. case of smallpox was in 1949, and the last naturally occurring case anywhere in the world was in Somalia in 1977, according to the CDC. Since then, according to the World Health Organization, the only known cases stemmed from a 1978 lab accident in England.
By international agreement, live smallpox samples are supposed to be held in only two places worldwide: one at the CDC in Atlanta and the other near Novosibirsk, Russia. A debate has been taking place in recent years over whether (or when) to destroy the last living strains of the virus. Some argue that the disease could re-emerge, so virus samples are needed to conduct research that would protect the public. Others argue that keeping live samples is the very thing ensuring smallpox is not fully wiped out.
The World Health Organization decided in May to postpone a decision on whether to destroy remaining stocks.