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Forgotten vials of smallpox found near DC

7/9/2014

USA Today
By Liz Szabo

Scientists last week discovered several vials of smallpox — one of the deadliest diseases known to man — in an unused storage room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., according to officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials say there's no health risk from the vials — either to NIH employees or the public. The vials of smallpox, which apparently date to the 1950s, were "immediately secured" in a CDC containment lab, according to a CDC statement. NIH officials alerted the CDC about the smallpox July 1.

Smallpox killed about one-third of its victims and is estimated to have killed up to 500 million people in the 20th century. It devastated populations around the world for at least 3,000 years until being officially eradicated by vaccines in 1980. There is ongoing concern that smallpox could be used in a bioterrorist attack.

The smallpox samples were found in a lab run by the Food and Drug Administration. Scientists discovered the vials when preparing to move to the FDA's main campus in Silver Spring, Md.

A government aircraft took the smallpox vials to CDC's high-containment facility in Atlanta on Monday, according to the CDC statement. Overnight genetic testing in a top-security lab confirmed that the vials did indeed contain smallpox, but CDC officials say they will need to do additional tests to find out whether the smallpox is viable or able to reproduce and spread. Testing could take up to two weeks. CDC scientists will destroy the smallpox samples after finishing the tests.

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