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Researchers Aghast Over Discovery Of Smallpox Vials


Scientists and a government lab just outside Washington DC said they found something in a storage room last week - six vials of the smallpox virus. We are obliged to remind you that smallpox is extremely dangerous. Some people may not even know since it was declared eradicated in 1980. Only two labs on the planet are supposed to have samples and this lab was not one of them. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on how the vials might have been overlooked.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: On July first scientists at the National Institutes of Health were cataloguing old samples when they found a box. Inside were vials labeled with the scientific name for smallpox.

STEVE MONROE: They immediately stopped what they were doing and packaged up all of the boxes into one larger box and secured that.

BRUMFIEL: That's Steve Monroe at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The box was moved to a secure lab, put under guard by the FBI and then shipped to the CDC on Monday. Preliminary analysis shows it is smallpox virus. Monroe thinks it could still be dangerous.

MONROE: I would not be surprised if one or more of the samples contain infectious virus.

BRUMFIEL: The samples appear to be from the 1950s and that could explain why they were just left lying around. D.A. Henderson led the charge to eradicate smallpox. He says back then many Americans were vaccinated against the disease, including the researchers.

D.A. HENDERSON: Work with laboratory smallpox would be done on an open bench without particular protection.

BRUMFIEL: Many labs had the virus until the early 1980s when they were supposed to hand in their samples. For a few years after that, Henderson said he'd hear occasional rumors a lost vial turning up.

HENDERSON: I was told quietly that, oops they had missed a specimen but they destroyed it but they were embarrassed to go head and report it.

BRUMFIEL: Still, researchers are shocked that vials of smallpox virus could go this long without being found.

RICHARD EBRIGHT: If you had asked me yesterday what the probability was that an undocumented sample was in circulation I would've said, nil.

BRUMFIEL: Richard Ebright is bio-security expert at Rutgers University. The U.S. and Russia each have one secure lab that holds smallpox virus. Ebright wants those samples destroyed.

EBRIGHT: Those people who supported maintaining this stockpile of infectious smallpox virus and carrying out a robust program of research on the virus will definitely seize on this development to support their view.

BRUMFIEL: That other undocumented samples might fall into the hands of terrorists and so we need to keep studying the virus to protect ourselves. The CDC says it does plan to destroy these newly discovered samples just as soon as it figures out where they came from. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.