Science
3:40 pm
Tue July 8, 2014

In A Lab Store Room, An Unsettling Surprise: Lost Vials Of Smallpox

Originally published on Tue July 8, 2014 5:13 pm

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health made an unpleasant discovery last week as they cleaned out an old laboratory: The lab contained vials of the smallpox virus, previously unknown to authorities. The vials have since been transferred to a secure lab at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Federal health officials revealed, today, that they had made a disturbing discovery. Scientists found vials of the deadly smallpox virus in an old storage room at an unsecured government lab outside Washington, D.C. The smallpox virus was declared eradicated from the world in 1980. It's supposed to be kept in only two places in the world - a high-security lab in Atlanta and another such lab in Russia. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel joins us now to tell us more. And Geoff, what happened? How did they find these vials of smallpox virus?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: On July 1, scientists on the campus of National Institutes of Health were clearing out an old lab that belonged to the Food and Drug Administration. They found vials that were labeled variola virus. That's the official name of smallpox, which is arguably the most deadly disease ever to affect mankind. It covers the body in horrible boils and kills about 30 percent of its victims. The last known case was in 1977. And we thought there were only two labs in the world that still had samples, so this comes as a big shock.

BLOCK: So they found these vials. And what happened to them then?

BRUMFIEL: Fortunately, the workers recognized immediately what they had. They put the vials back in the boxes and moved it to the NIH's biosafety level three laboratory. Then, they notified officials at the Centers for Disease Control. They called in FBI, and they brought in local law enforcement to guard the samples. Yesterday evening, they were moved to CDC headquarters in Atlanta and put into an even higher security biosafety level four lab. That's the kind of lab where people are wearing moon suits. You see them on the movies. Preliminary DNA tests showed that the six vials contained smallpox virus, though the CDC can't yet confirm if it was still infectious.

BLOCK: And have they been able to trace back where these vials of smallpox virus came from in the first place?

BRUMFIEL: The files appear to date from the 1950s. And I spoke to the CDC, and they weren't willing to speculate much beyond that. I also talked to D. A. Henderson, the researcher who led the effort to eradicate smallpox. And he says, they're probably just samples somebody lost track of.

D,A, HENDERSON: Virologists and microbiologists often put away certain specimens and kind of forget that they have them.

BLOCK: Geoff, that's not very reassuring. I mean, this isn't just any sample. This is smallpox virus, a deadly, deadly disease.

BRUMFIEL: Well, Henderson told me, you have to remember this is back in the 1950s. And smallpox is still a disease out in the world. So back then, you know, the researchers would have been vaccinated against smallpox and so would have much of the U.S. population. And actually, they were just handling it out in the open. It wasn't particularly dangerous to them. Henderson says, he can remember a government laboratory roughly in that area called the Division of Biologic Standards. And that may have been the government entity that had this virus, though obviously that's just speculation. There will be a much more thorough investigation.

BLOCK: What happens to these vials of smallpox virus now?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the CDC is going to conduct some further tests on them. They're going to do a more detailed DNA sequence. They want to find out if this really could have still been infectious, and they believe that it probably could have. It appears to be stored in a form that is viable for long periods of time. It also may provide some clues as to where the virus came from, although at that time, people were swapping viruses a lot between labs. So it's hard to say for sure whether they'll be up to pinpoint it's origin. Ultimately, though, this virus will be destroyed.

BLOCK: And how do you go about destroying a smallpox virus?

BRUMFIEL: Well, one way to do it is to autoclave it - to basically burn it in very high heat. And that should destroy the virus for good.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thanks.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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