Shortly after the shocking news that a Federal agent discovered six vials of smallpox in a forgotten storage area follows new concern: the storage are contained dengue, rickettsia, and influenza vials as well, among others, totaling over 300 containers of deadly disease. This leaves many concerned that the government agencies handling this deadly pathogens are not doing so in a sufficiently safe manner.
The Washington Post reported on the matter, saying that the vials of influenza and other pathogens had been discovered in a cold storage room at a National Institutes for Health facility located in Bethesda, Maryland. The director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, Karen Midthun, spoke to reporters about the matter Wednesday, but was unable to give any solid answers, or explain away the influenza and other vials.
The fact that these materials were not discovered until now is unacceptable. We take this matter very seriously, and we’re working to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
The FDA has also said that these samples were probably from a collection put together between 1946 and 1964, when handling standards were different. However, agents have also testified that the pathogens were still alive, making the error a particularly terrifying one.
Control of viruses and vaccines was handed over to the FDA from the NIH in 1972, so an assurance that the pathogens in these vials were older than that date would also pass the blame to the other agency.
These vials aren’t the first concern to arise recently about how deadly diseases are handled, either: it was only last month that a handling error exposed as many as 75 employees at the Center for Disease Control to live anthrax spores, in a lab where only deactivated samples should have been.
According to USA Today, about 32 of the vials were destroyed on the spot, while around 200, including the influenza vials, were logged and transported to the Department of Homeland Security’s National Bioforensic Analysis Center, where they can be kept safely, or disposed of, as officials determine.
While it’s not clear which samples were destroyed, officials have reported that none of the ones transported contained smallpox. Aside from influenza, smallpox, and others, it’s been suggested the vials may contain other, unknown, diseases.
While many labs hold vials of influenza and many other pathogens, only two labs in the world were supposed to contain smallpox samples. One of these is in Novosibirsk, Russia, and the other is the CDC facility in Atlanta, Georgia. As this was a global agreement after the eradication of smallpox, it’s of great concern to see that at least one government failed to adequately follow it, and it raises the question of whether similar vials are in other dark corners.
Officials may be able to release more information about the smallpox, dengue, and influenza vials as they have more time to study the recovered items.