The dreaded viral disease has been declared eradicated three decades ago and there have been no new immunizations developed against it.
The possible reintroduction of smallpox to a world that has no immunization is a big health concern, so any existing samples of the virus had been isolated in only two laboratories in the world that are capable of handling them.
However, a government scientist uncovered six old smallpox vials from the 1950s while he was cleaning up an old lab inside the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda last week and did not know how they got there.
Initial reports say the vials seemed to have been properly sealed and there were no immediate indications that they, nor the Bethesda laboratory where they were found, may have been compromised.
But there is a lot of mystery surrounding their presence and accidental discovery inside Building 29A of the NIH, a lab used by the Food and Drug Administration.
FDA officials said they took over the task of conducting smallpox vaccinations from the NIH 40 years ago, and suspect that the cardboard boxes containing the smallpox vials may have been left there by a researcher.
Federal Bureau of Investigation officers flew the smallpox vials to the Atlanta headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control on Sunday, where agents are now trying to determine if the virus they contained were still capable of causing infection.
The FBI, CDC and NIH worked hand in hand to ensure the safe packaging and transport of the smallpox vials because of the risk to safety that they posed. Aside from the possible epidemic it can cause to a non-immunized population, the deadly nature of the virus makes it a potential biological weapon if left in the wrong hands.
Federal officials said the first set of tests confirmed the presence of smallpox DNA. They will be subjected to further tests that may take two weeks to complete, after which the vials will be destroyed.
A 1979 international agreement allows samples of the smallpox virus to be maintained for research purposes only in two facilities in the world: at the highly secure laboratory of the CDC in Atlanta, and in a bio-tech research center in Novosibirsk, Russia.
Smallpox killed hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century but was declared by the World Health Organization as having been globally eradicated in 1980.
Return to News Home