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Washington - A government scientist cleaning out a storage room at a lab on the Bethesda, Md., campus of the National Institutes of Health found decades-old vials of smallpox last week, the second incident involving the mishandling of a highly dangerous pathogen by a federal health agency in a month.
The vials, which appear to date from the 1950s, were flown Sunday night by government plane to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, officials said Tuesday. Initial testing confirmed the presence of smallpox virus DNA. Further testing, which could take up to two weeks, will determine whether the material is live. The samples will be destroyed after the testing is completed.
There is no evidence that any of the vials had been breached or that workers in the lab, which has been used by the Food and Drug Administration for decades, were exposed to infection. Nevertheless, 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.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the CDC's division of select agents and toxins are investigating. "Due to the potential bio-safety and bio-security issues involved, the FBI worked with CDC and NIH to ensure safe packaging and secure transport of the materials," said FBI spokesman Christopher Allen.
This is the first time that the deadly virus has been discovered outside the only two facilities in the world where smallpox samples are allowed, by international agreement, to be stored - a highly secure lab at CDC headquarters in Atlanta and a virology and biotechnology research center in Novosibirsk, Russia.
Smallpox vanished from the United States just after World War II and was eradicated globally by 1980.
But the disease killed hundreds of millions of people in the 20th Century alone.
"It was considered one of the worst things that could happen to a community to have a smallpox outbreak," said Michael Osterholm, a bioterrorism expert and director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "It's a disease that's had a major impact on human history."
There is no cure for smallpox, and historically about one-third of people who contract it die from the disease. Though not as readily contagious as some other diseases, such as influenza, smallpox promises plenty of misery once contracted. Symptoms include high fever, fatigue and fluid-filled lesions that often ooze and crust over, leaving survivors irreversibly scarred.
Last month, a safety lapse involving three CDC labs in Atlanta led to the accidental release of live anthrax bacteria, an incident that required as many as 84 employees to get a vaccine or take antibiotics as a precaution and resulted in the reassignment of one lab director. Scientists failed to take proper precautions to inactivate bacteria samples before transferring them to other labs not equipped to handle live anthrax.
The biggest mystery about the smallpox discovery is how the samples ended up in Building 29A on the NIH campus. The building is an FDA lab, one of several that FDA has operated on the NIH campus since 1972. The vials were discovered while employees were preparing for the lab's move to the FDA's main campus at White Oak, Md.
An FDA scientist found a cardboard box on July 1 containing glass vials, each several inches long, sealed with melted glass. The box was lined with cotton padding, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said. Several vials were labeled flu virus or other specimens. Sixteen other vials were either labeled "variola," or smallpox, or suspected of containing smallpox virus. All the vials were immediately secured in a containment laboratory. The 16 suspect vials were flown to Atlanta. Testing confirmed the presence of smallpox virus DNA in six.
"This was a lab that didn't realize it had these vials," said Skinner. Because the vials are made of glass and sealed with melted glass, officials say the vials appear to date to the 1950s. He said the material could have been sitting around in the storage room "unbeknownst to the people up there for many years."
About 18,000 people work on the sprawling NIH campus in Bethesda. An NIH spokeswoman said the agency is planning a comprehensive search of all laboratory spaces. She said officials did not notify employees about the discovery because the vials were checked and found to have no breaches.
The CDC notified the World Health Organization. A spokeswoman for the WHO said any samples of the smallpox virus found outside of those two locations must be moved to those locations or destroyed.
Bioterrorism expert Osterholm likened the discovery to finding a long-forgotten trunk in an attic and said that biologists are no different from other people, collecting things and storing them.
He said government officials handled the discovery appropriately and acted quickly and cautiously. "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."
An accidental release of the virus potentially could sicken a small number of people who come into contact with it, though he said such an outbreak likely could be contained rapidly given today's vaccine supplies and antiviral drugs. The more worrisome prospect, he said, would be if someone with bad intentions were able to aerosolize the virus and spread it over a large metropolitan area. "That could be a global crisis," he said.
When smallpox was officially declared eradicated in late 1979, an agreement was reached under which any remaining stocks of the virus would either be destroyed or sent to one of two secure laboratories - one at the CDC in Atlanta and another at the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology in Russia. Any samples found outside those two places were to be moved to those locations or destroyed.
In the decades since, the scientific community has wrestled over whether to destroy the remaining stockpiles of the smallpox virus or hang onto them in case they are needed for research.
Those who argue in favor or destroying the remaining smallpox samples - a group that includes D.A. Henderson, who led a worldwide effort to eradicate the disease decades ago - point out that an effective vaccine already exists and that maintaining live samples only risks accidental infections, or worse, vials falling into the hands of terrorists. But other scientists, including officials at the CDC and NIH, have insisted that there is more valuable research to be done before scientists can say confidently that adequate protections exist against any future smallpox threats.
The World Health Assembly, the WHO's decision-making body, once again revisited the question this spring at a meeting in Geneva over whether to destroy the remaining stockpiles of smallpox. Amid sharply divided opinions on the issue, the group postponed a final decision.