The last remaining strains of smallpox are kept in highly protected government laboratories in Russia and at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. And, apparently, in a dusty cardboard box in an old storage room in Maryland.
The CDC said today that government workers had found six freeze-dried vials of the Variola virus, which causes smallpox, in a storage room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland last week. Each test tube had a label on it that said "variola," which was a tip-off, but the agency did genetic testing to confirm that the viruses were, in fact, smallpox.
It's unclear whether or not the strains are still virulent, the agency told me, but they were kept in a cold room, where the virus should have been able to survive.
According to the agency, the virus was freeze dried and sealed in melted glass and the samples have been in storage since the 1950s. The Food and Drug Administration had been using the building where the samples were found since 1972, six years before smallpox killed its last person.
"The vials appear to date from the 1950s. Upon discovery, the vials were immediately secured in a CDC registered select agent containment laboratory in Bethesda," Benjamin Haynes, a CDC spokesperson, told me. "There is no evidence that any of the vials labeled Variola have been breached, and onsite biosafety personnel have not identified any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the general public."
So, that's good news. Haynes said that the CDC did emergency genetic testing of the strains to confirm that they were smallpox. It's currently doing further tests to determine whether the strains are still virulent, which could take up to two weeks.
"After completion of this testing, the samples will be destroyed," he said. He said the FBI is currently helping the CDC investigate how the original samples were prepared and why they were stored in the building.
The CDC notified the World Health Organization and said that WHO witnesses will be invited to watch the destruction of the virus.
"The laboratory was among those transferred from NIH to the FDA in 1972, along with the responsibility for regulating biologic products," Haynes said. "The FDA has operated laboratories located on the NIH campus since that time. Scientists discovered the vials while preparing for the laboratory’s move to the FDA’s main campus."
If you're not sure why this is such a big deal, it's because smallpox killed some 300 million people in the 20th century alone, and is the only human infectious disease that has ever been eradicated—a process that took the greater part of the 19th and 20th centuries. WHO declared smallpox eradicated back in 1979, but two strains of the virus are kept for further testing in extremely secure labs in Atlanta and in Russia.
Those strains were supposed to be destroyed multiple times—first in 1993 and then in 1999. But researchers in both Russia and the United States wanted to hold onto the virus to continue researching it. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, said that keeping the virus was important because there could be unknown stocks of the virus out there somewhere. Little did she know, some of those stocks happened to be in a government building:
"Although keeping the samples may carry a minuscule risk, both the United States and Russia believe the dangers of destroying them now are far greater," she wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2011. "It is quite possible that undisclosed or forgotten stocks exist.
"Also, 30 years after the disease was eradicated, the virus’ genomic information is available online and the technology now exists for someone with the right tools and the wrong intentions to create a new smallpox virus in a laboratory," she continued. "Destroying the virus now is merely a symbolic act that would slow our progress and could even stop it completely, leaving the world vulnerable."
WHO, meanwhile, has said there's little point in doing further research on smallpox. Haynes told me that CDC researchers regularly and actively work with the virus in Atlanta.