FDA finds forgotten stockpile of smallpox virus

While cleaning out a storage room in an old lab, workers from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found a small stockpile of six vials containing the smallpox virus, variola, which had previously been forgotten. The lab, located in Bethesda, MA, has belonged to the FDA since 1972, when it took over the facility from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Before vaccines were developed to protect against it, smallpox was one of the deadliest diseases known to man. After the vaccine was introduced, aggressive vaccination programs were instituted worldwide and the disease was officially eradicated in 1980.

Prior to that, the last recorded case of smallpox was in 1978 in England. The last case of infection in the United States was recorded in 1949 and in 1972 the vaccine was no longer given to the general population because the potential side effects outweighed the risks of smallpox infection.

In the late 1970s, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a campaign to locate and either destroy or transfer all samples of the variola virus to two secure labs, one in Russia and one in the United States. This move prompted concerns regarding the plausibility that all samples could be found and contained. The stockpile of the forgotten vials with the smallpox virus found by the FDA is the fourth instance of the validity of these concerns.

Testing on the vials is still underway, but thus far it has been determined that they do contain the variola virus and that the vials have not been compromised in a way that would lead to threat of an outbreak. They have been safely transferred to the U.S. facility in Atlanta, where they will likely be destroyed once the final tests determine if the freeze dried virus is viable or not. The WHO has been invited to participate in both the testing and destruction phases, as protocol dictates.

The discovery of the forgotten stockpile has prompted questions regarding whether or not the other samples of smallpox virus stored in the two major facilities should be destroyed. This is not the first time these questions have been addressed, but concerns over a reemergence of the disease range from accidental finds like that reported by the FDA to malicious hoardings with the intent of biological warfare.

Even the issue of ancient dead bodies is cause for concern. To date, all instances of corpses found to contain the virus had resided in conditions that left the virus nonviable. However, the issue of global warming causes concerns that the viruses stored in freezing conditions could be released with the thawing of frigid climates.