Guess What Turned Up at a Random Maryland Lab? Smallpox!

So we previously discussed smallpox security concerns in the lead up to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) vote on whether to destroy the last vestiges of the virus held in two laboratories in Atlanta and Russia. Update: WHO voted to keep the deadly strains alive for research, and in a recent twist, vials of the virus have just been discovered at an unsecure lab in Maryland. Egads!

Slip of the Mind

The vials weren’t intentionally hidden away at the facility for sinister purposes, but were just sort of forgotten about for years. Which is kind of good, but also disturbing. Pending a move to a new facility, the Maryland scientists finally got around to that spring cleaning they’ve been meaning to do since the 1950s. Amid the extra lab bottles and Bunsen burners: six freeze-dried vials with labels dated to the midcentury, indicating they held the most severe form of smallpox.

Unsecure and Unequipped

Besides lacking the WHO-directed security clearance to hold the virus, spokesmen said the Maryland facility—run by the FDA—isn’t equipped to handle the pathogen. Sounds like that means the vials could have spelled outbreak central (which may or may not have included infected scientists running and screaming hysterically through the halls of the lab). The vials have since been shipped off to the Centers for Disease Control’s Atlanta facility, where scientists will test the vials’ DNA content to confirm whether the disease remains active. Either way, these vials will be destroyed. Or so we’re told.

Pending Investigation

The FBI is getting in on the action to investigate the history of these vials and how they ended up at the facility. Might this investigation unearth other unsecure vials? According to a CDC official, "We can't say with 100 percent certainty there are no other vials like this."

And not to exacerbate fears, but if these things date back to the 1950s, it seems like smallpox could theoretically pop up at labs in a number of different countries. That’s when we just have to shrug and cue Idina Menzel: “Let It Go,” y’all.

Image: ThinkStock

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