Live smallpox long forgotten at the NIH
Much of the planet would be susceptible
The most shocking of the recent laboratory mishaps and biosafety breaches was the discovery of a long-forgotten cache of live smallpox in a lab storage area at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD.
The last case of smallpox in the wild occurred in 1977 and the disease was declared eradicated in 1980. The vaccine is no longer routinely administered, leaving much of the human population susceptible to the disfiguring killer. In the 20th century an estimated 300 million people died from smallpox, which has a mortality rate of roughly one-third of those infected. Suffice it to say, a single case of smallpox anywhere in the world would be a public health emergency.
On July 1 the NIH notified the Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that employees discovered vials labeled "variola" in an unused portion of a storage room in a Food and Drug Administration lab located on the NIH campus.
The laboratory was among those transferred from NIH to FDA in 1972, along with the responsibility for regulating biologic products. The FDA has operated laboratories located on the NIH campus since that time, and the vials were discovered when the lab was being moved to the FDA’s main campus. The vials appear to date from the 1950s, according to a CDC report of the incident. Upon discovery, the vials were immediately secured in a CDC-registered select agent containment laboratory in Bethesda. There was no evidence that any of the vials had been breached, and onsite biosafety personnel did not identify any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public, the CDC found.
On July 7 the vials were transported with the assistance of federal and local law enforcement agencies to CDC’s high-containment facility in Atlanta. Overnight PCR testing done by CDC in a BSL-4 lab confirmed the presence of variola virus DNA, and two of the six vials contained live smallpox. Additional testing of the variola samples was continuing as this issue went to press.
"The problem was not in the creation of the materials but in the inventory control which allowed them to remain unsecured for decades," CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, said at press conference. "They should have been destroyed decades ago, and once we complete the work here, we will destroy them."
The officially acknowledged stocks of live smallpox virus — the so-called "demon in the freezer" — are stored at the CDC in Atlanta and the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk, Russia. The discovery of the vials at the NIH has raised the question of whether there could be other unaccounted stores of smallpox. In scouring the NIH campus for other misplaced biologics, no other smallpox was found but the FDA reported uncovering 12 boxes containing a total of 327 carefully packaged vials labeled with names of various biological agents such as dengue, influenza, Q fever, and rickettsia. The vials were turned over to the appropriate NIH program safety officers.