WIKIMEDIA, CDC/FRED MURPHYA laboratory cleanup on the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) unearthed a troubling find: vials labeled “variola,” a.k.a. smallpox. “This certainly is an unusual event,” Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told The Washington Post.
It’s not clear what the 16 vials were doing in the storage room, which belongs to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The lab is located on an NIH campus in Silver Spring, Maryland, but staff members were preparing to move the lab to the FDA’s main campus, in nearby Bethesda, when they made the discovery. The vials, dating back to the 1950s, were then shipped to the CDC’s high-containment facility in Atlanta—one of only two places in the world sanctioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) to possess smallpox.
The CDC is testing the material to see if the variola virus present is actually viable. According to a press release from the CDC, “if viable smallpox is present, WHO will be invited to witness the destruction of these smallpox materials, as has been the precedent for other cases where smallpox samples have been found outside of the two official repositories.”