Scientists of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found vials labeled “variola” (commonly known as smallpox) in an unused portion of a storage room in an FDA laboratory on the NIH Bethesda campus. The NIH notified the Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT) of this discovery on July 1, 2014.

The vials, dated from the 1950s, were discovered while preparing for the laboratory’s move to the FDA’s main campus. The vials were promptly secured in a CDC-registered selected agent containment laboratory in Bethesda. No infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public has been identified at this time.

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On July 7th, the vials were then transported to the CDC’s high-containment facility in Atlanta. Results of the PCR testing confirmed the presence of variola virus DNA. More testing is being done to determine if the content can survive in tissue culture. Once this test is done, the samples will be destroyed, following the precedent for other smallpox samples that have been found outside of the two official repositories.

The DSAT and FBI are investigating how these samples were first prepared and then stored in the FDA laboratory. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been invited to participate in the investigation.

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