A government scientist cleaning out an old storage room at a research center near Washington made a startling discovery last week — decades-old vials of smallpox packed away and forgotten in a cardboard box.
The six glass vials were intact and sealed, and scientists have yet to establish whether the virus is dead or alive, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.
Still, the find was disturbing because for decades after smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, world health authorities said the only known samples left were safely stored in super-secure laboratories in Atlanta and in Russia.
It was the second recent incident in which a U.S. government health agency appeared to have mishandled a highly dangerous germ. Last month, scores of CDC employees in Atlanta were feared exposed to anthrax because of a laboratory safety lapse.
The freeze-dried smallpox samples were found in a building at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., that has been used by the Food and Drug Administration since 1972. The scientist was cleaning out a cold room between two laboratories on July 1 when he made the discovery, FDA officials said.
The FDA scientist found the cardboard box containing glass vials, each several inches long, sealed with melted glass. Several vials were labeled flu virus or other specimens. Other vials were either labeled “variola,” or smallpox, or suspected of containing smallpox virus.
Officials said labeling indicated the smallpox had been put in the vials in the 1950s. But they said it’s not clear how long the vials had been in the building, which did not open until the 1960s.
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said the material could have been sitting around in the storage room “unbeknownst to the people up there for many years.”
The building’s employees apparently had not received official communication about the discovery. One scientist who works in the building and declined to be identified for fear of retaliation said he learned about it when his supervisor read a media report Tuesday.
Smallpox can be deadly even after it is freeze-dried, but the virus usually has to be kept cold to remain alive and dangerous.
On Tuesday, a CDC official said he believed the vials were stored for many years at room temperature, which would suggest the samples are dead. But FDA officials said later in the day that the smallpox was in cold storage for decades.
“We don’t yet know if it’s live and infectious,” said Stephan Monroe of the CDC.
The samples eventually will be destroyed.
Smallpox was one of the most lethal diseases in history. For centuries, it killed about a third of the people it infected. The last known case was in Britain in 1978, when a photographer who worked above a lab handling smallpox died after being exposed to it through the ventilation system.
Donald “D.A.” Henderson, who led the WHO smallpox-eradication effort, conceded “things were pretty casual” in the 1950s.
Decades ago, he recalled, “I came back from many a trip carrying specimens, and I just put them in the refrigerator until I could get them to a laboratory. My wife didn’t appreciate that.”
After smallpox was declared eradicated, all known remaining samples of live virus were stored at a CDC lab in Atlanta and at a Russian lab in Novosibirsk, Siberia. There has long been debate over whether to destroy those stockpiles.
Bioterrorism expert Michael Osterholm likened the Maryland discovery to finding a long-forgotten trunk in an attic.
“I’m not convinced this will be the last of these potential situations,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere else in the world this same type of thing happens again.”
The Washington Post contributed to this report.