Vials labeled “smallpox” found in a freezer in a Philadelphia laboratory contain no trace of the deadly virus, federal health officials say.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Thursday that tests showed the vials contained “vaccinia, the virus used in smallpox vaccine,” rather than the variola virus, which causes smallpox .
The vials “were discovered by accident” by a lab worker who wore gloves and a face mask while clearing the freezer on Monday night.
There were a total of 15 vials – five of which were labeled “Smallpox” and the other 10 were labeled “Vaccinia”.
Smallpox was eradicated with a successful mass vaccination campaign in 1980 after an estimated 300 million people died from it in the 20th century alone.
Samples of the deadly virus are only supposed to be kept in two laboratories: the CDC headquarters in Atlanta and the Vector Institute in Koltsovo, Russia.
The CDC says that vials discovered in a Merck laboratory in Philadelphia were mistakenly labeled “smallpox”. Pictured: A bottle of the smallpox vaccine in 2003
Federal officials say the vials contain “vaccinia, the virus used in the smallpox vaccine,” and not the variola virus, which causes smallpox. Pictured: CDC headquarters
The discovery was reportedly made at Merck’s Upper Gwenydd facility outside of Philadelphia
Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, told the New York Times that the vials were found at a Merck facility in Montgomery County.
It wasn’t clear why the vials were in the freezer.
The CDC said it was “in close contact with state and local health authorities, law enforcement agencies and the World Health Organization” regarding the results.
The finding was first reported by Yahoo News, which received a copy of a warning sent to the Department of Homeland Security that read “For Official Use Only”.
What is smallpox and how does it spread?
smallpox is a serious, life-threatening disease caused by the variola virus.
A person may not look or feel sick for 7-14 days after exposure, but initially Symptoms include high fever, headache, back pain, and vomiting.
About a third of the sick die.
After the first symptoms, a body-wide rash appears. The person is most contagious at this stage.
Rashes develop in the tongue, mouth and throat. They then spread to the face and arms, torso and legs.
Pus-filled bumps, also called pustules, form and begin to crust and fall off over a period of about 10 days.
It was mainly spread through prolonged face-to-face contact due to respiratory particles. The virus was also spread through sharing bed linen, towels, and clothing.
Source: Cleveland Clinic
After they were discovered, the vials were immediately secured and the facility was locked down, which was suspended until Wednesday evening.
“Merck is about to find out why it was there,” the source told NBC10 on Wednesday
Merck did not immediately respond to a request for comment from DailyMail.com.
“There is no evidence that anyone was exposed to the small number of frozen vials,” a CDC spokesman told Yahoo!
“The frozen vials labeled” Smallpox “were accidentally discovered by a lab worker while clearing a freezer at a facility in Pennsylvania doing vaccine research.”
The discovery took place at the Merck Upper Gwynedd facility in North Wales, about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, according to WCAU.
“CDC, its administrative partners and law enforcement agencies are investigating the matter and the contents of the vials appear intact. The lab worker who discovered the vials wore gloves and a face mask. We will provide more details as they become available, ”said the spokesman.
The incident is likely to renew the question of what to do with the world’s smallpox samples, which are held in only two laboratories in the world.
Smallpox is an infection caused by the variola virus. Patients develop a fever and a severe, progressive rash, according to the CDC.
Most Americans aren’t vaccinated for the disease and those who are likely to have declining immunity, meaning an outbreak could be devastating.
The vaccine leaves a ten-cent lesion that gradually forms a scab and leaves a scar, the CDC says. The lesion is contagious before the scab forms, and those who receive it must protect the vaccination site from other parts of the body and other people.
The FBI and CDC are investigating Tuesday’s results. Smallpox is only supposed to be stored in two laboratories in the world: the CDC in Atlanta and a state laboratory in Russia
In 2014, a government scientist clearing out an old storage room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland – just outside Washington, DC, found six decades old glass vials of freeze-dried smallpox, according to the Washington Post.
The samples were packed in a cardboard box and forgotten. At the time, it was the first such discovery in the country.
In 2019, an explosion at the Russian state laboratory where some of the samples were stored sent a worker to the hospital, despite the World Health Organization saying the explosion did not occur near inventory levels, according to NPR.
Earlier this month, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates said the US and UK should invest “tens of billions” in virus research, including how to prevent smallpox attacks in places like airports, according to Yahoo News.
“In addition to the climate message and the ongoing fight against diseases of the poor, I will talk a lot about preparing for a pandemic,” he said in an interview with British health politician Jeremy Hunt.
How was the deadly virus that killed around 300 million people in the 20th century finally eradicated?
The disease causes bumps or pustules filled with pus that cover the body. Above, an unidentified man with smallpox in an undated photo
The origin of smallpox is unknown, but the earliest written description of a similar virus appeared in China in the 4th century.
It has typically worked during outbreaks and was brought to North America by European settlers in the 17th century.
About a third of the infected patients died. Those who survived were sometimes left with various scars or even blind.
The “basis for vaccination” began in 1796 when the English doctor Edward Jenner discovered that milkmaids who had developed cowpox were also protected from smallpox, according to the CDC.
In the 1800s, the virus used to make the smallpox vaccine changed from cowpox to vaccinia virus. (Five of the fifteen vials found in Philadelphia on Tuesday were labeled “Vaccinia.”)
Before vaccination, variolation was a common method of protection from the virus. People who have never had smallpox would take material from pustules of infected people and scratch their arm or inhale through their noses to develop immunity.
Around 300 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century before being eradicated by a mass vaccination campaign. Upstairs, a boy is vaccinated in New York in 1938
In 1948, according to the WHO, the virus infected around 50 million people worldwide each year.
Experts estimate that the virus killed around 300 million people in the 20th century.
Soviet scientist Viktor Zhdanov proposed a four-year global vaccination campaign starting in 1959, and the campaign received a worldwide boost in 1966 and 1967 with the Intensified Eradication Program, backed by US funding.
“Laboratories in many countries with frequent smallpox have been able to produce more high-quality freeze-dried vaccine,” the CDC notes.
“Other factors that played an important role in the success of the intensified effort were the development of the bifurcated needle, the establishment of a case monitoring system, and mass vaccination campaigns.”
The last known naturally occurring case occurred in Somalia in 1977. The last natural outbreak in the US was in 1949.
In 1980 the WHO declared the disease to be eradicated.
According to Yahoo News, most Americans are not currently vaccinated for the disease and those who are likely to have declining immunity.
Sources: World Health Organization, US Centers for Disease Control