Via CIDRAP, Lisa Schnirring writes: Decades-old smallpox samples turn up in federal lab. Excerpt:
National Institutes of Health (NIH) employees discovered old vials that appear to contain smallpox in an unused lab area and have turned them over to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for containment and testing, federal officials announced today.
The vials, labeled "variola," appear to date from the 1950s and were found in an unused part of a storage room in a lab on the NIH's Bethesda campus that was transferred to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1972, the CDC said in a statement today. Scientists found the vials while getting ready for the lab to move to the FDA's main campus in Silver Spring, Md.
They immediately secured the samples in a registered select-agent lab in Bethesda, Md., and yesterday federal officials and law enforcement agencies moved them to the CDC's biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab in Atlanta.
Testing for live virus
So far there is no sign that the samples were breached, and no exposure risks to lab workers or the public have been found, the CDC said.
Scientists at the BSL-4 lab detected variola virus DNA, and further tests are under way to see if the material in the vials contains live virus. Results won't be known for about 2 weeks, and lab workers will destroy the samples after testing.
The CDC said it has notified the World Health Organization (WHO), which oversees an international agreement on the security and safety of smallpox virus samples at two designated repositories: one at the CDC in Atlanta and one in Novosibirsk, Russia.
The WHO has been asked to join the investigation and will witness the destruction of the materials, based on protocols that are part of the international agreement. Federal agencies are piecing together how the samples were originally prepared and stored in the FDA lab.
How big a threat?
Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, said an accidental release would be worrisome, compared with other dangerous pathogens such as influenza, but public health officials could easily contain one with vaccination and antivirals. Osterholm is director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, publisher of CIDRAP News.
He said there may well be other similar samples languishing in old freezers or trunks in attics, and scientists may be uncovering more vials in the future. However, he said the bigger concern is intentional use of the smallpox virus, which the US government considers a Tier 1 select agent, alongside other dangerous pathogens such as the Ebola virus and Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax.
Though it's unlikely that terrorists have their sights on old smallpox samples, the event is a reminder that genetic tools that may have the potential to someday recreate viruses such as variola are becoming more sophisticated, Osterholm said.