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U.S. Locks Down Smallpox Vials Found Forgotten in Closet

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Emergency personnel participate in a 2003 terrorism drill in Seattle. Forgotten vials of smallpox have been found at a U.S. government facility in Bethesda, Md. Emergency personnel participate in a 2003 terrorism drill in Seattle. Forgotten vials of smallpox have been found at a U.S. government facility in Bethesda, Md. (Ron Wurzer/Getty Images)

Smallpox, an eradicated scourge feared for its weapons potential, has turned up in forgotten vials at a U.S. government facility.

Workers discovered containers of the deadly virus as they emptied out a Food and Drug Administration branch office at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Tuesday. Barring any secret stockpile, the last smallpox in existence was thought to be held at tightly guarded facilities in Atlanta and Novosibirsk, Russia.

"The vials appear to date from the 1950s," according to a CDC statement. "Upon discovery, the vials were immediately secured in a CDC-registered select agent containment laboratory in Bethesda."

"There is no evidence that any of the vials ... has been breached, and on-site biosafety personnel have not identified any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public," the press release says. "Late on July 7, the vials were transported safely and securely with the assistance of federal and local law enforcement agencies to CDC’s high-containment facility in Atlanta."

Center analysts confirmed the presence of smallpox DNA in the vials, and further tests are expected to determine if the material could still have caused infection.

"This testing could take up to 2 weeks. After completion of this testing, the samples will be destroyed," the agency said.

"CDC has notified [the World Health Organization] about the discovery, and WHO has been invited to participate in the investigation. 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."

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