FBI, CDC Investigating Vials Labeled ‘Smallpox’

A modern smallpox vaccination kit. (Photo: CDC)The FBI is investigating a handful of newly-discovered frozen vials labeled “smallpox,” according to the Center for Disease Control. The vials were found in a vaccine research facility in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania when a lab worker was cleaning out a freezer. Of the 15 vials located, five were labeled as “smallpox” while the other ten were labeled “vaccinia.” 

Thankfully, sources don’t believe anyone has been exposed to the disease. “There is no indication that anyone has been exposed to the small number of frozen vials,” the CDC told CNN. “The laboratory worker who discovered the vials was wearing gloves and a face mask. We will provide further details as they are available.” The vials also appeared to be intact when they were found. 

A similar incident occurred in 2014, when employees at the National Institutes of Health happened upon six vials of smallpox while moving lab materials. Back then biosafety personnel couldn’t identify any real risk of infectious exposure, either, though two of the vials contained “viable” virus, or disease that still lives outside of a host. The vials were transported to a high-containment CDC facility in Atlanta, where they were tested and then safely destroyed. A similar fate may await the vials just discovered in Montgomery County, which were transported to the CDC yesterday. 

The CDC’s Atlanta campus—one of two locations globally where the smallpox virus is meant to be stored. (Photo: CDC)

Smallpox hasn’t been much of a concern since 1980, before which it killed 300 million people across the span of a century. Thanks to the first vaccine developed against a contagious disease, smallpox eventually became the only human disease ever to be fully eradicated—and it’s been that way ever since. While the average person no longer receives inoculation against smallpox, vaccines are doled out to researchers and members of the military who run the risk of encountering the virus in their work. And just in case, the American government has a stockpile of smallpox vaccines large enough to inoculate everyone in the United States. (Whether that’s comforting or terrifying, you decide.) 

The smallpox virus is only meant to be stored in two locations globally: at the CDC in Atlanta and at Russia’s version of the CDC. The disease is so deadly that its lab samples are intentionally restricted. All other samples were meant to be destroyed when smallpox was eradicated decades ago.

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