The eventual accidental release of a deadly pathogen

Scientists said Tuesday that six glass vials found in a storeroom in a government laboratory outside Washington contained the smallpox virus. It was the second incident in a month that revealed government mishandling of potentially deadly infectious agents.
The sealed vials were discovered on July 1 in a Food and Drug Administration lab at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. The vials, which were labeled “variola,” another name for smallpox, were sent on Monday to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where tests showed that they contained smallpox, the C.D.C. said in a statement. Additional tests to determine whether the smallpox is viable will take about two weeks, the centers said, after which  the samples will be destroyed.
Biosafety personnel “have not identified any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public,” the C.D.C. said.
Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 following a long worldwide public health campaign. Until now, the only known samples of the virus were at high-security labs at the C.D.C. in Atlanta and in Russia.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said that when smallpox was eradicated, “every single research lab in the world was asked to scour their facilities and submit all specimens for accounting and destruction.” The fact that these vials were found in a storeroom, he said, “seems curious beyond belief.”
The vials appear to date from the 1950s. Responsibility for the laboratory where they were found was transferred to the F.D.A. from the National Institutes of Health in 1972. The vials were discovered when scientists were preparing to move the lab to the F.D.A.’s main campus.
In mid-June, as many as 75 C.D.C. scientists were potentially exposed to live anthrax bacteria after samples were sent to laboratories unequipped to handle the pathogen. The agency had been testing a new way to kill the bacteria. After shipping the samples, the C.D.C. discovered that the method did not work as well as expected. Federal officials said the likelihood that anyone was exposed was very small, but a number of the scientists were treated with antibiotics out of an abundance of caution.

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