Let me introduce you to a little disease known as smallpox. To most, it’s just a word they’ve heard, something historical about Native Americans and blankets or something. Is it like chicken pox? No, no, it’s awful and you can be forgiven for not really knowing much about smallpox since it was effectively wiped from the face of the Earth in 1979. That’s how deadly it was, the powers that be determined that it had to be cleansed from the planet. When it wandered free among the population it brought with it a 30-35% mortality rate, that means one out of three people who got it died and boy was it contagious. What’s more, if you were a child, your mortality rate jumped to 80% in many cases. During the 20th century alone it killed between 300-500 million people and even if you lived you were going to be scarred for life.
So, you might imagine the shock that employees over at the National Institute of Health felt when they discovered six vials full of the smallpox virus just sitting on the shelf as they went to clean out an old lab. As far as they knew, there were only two samples of the virus still in existence for research purposes, in the U.S. and Russia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that employees at the National Institutes of Health found some vials containing smallpox sitting in a laboratory storage room in Bethesda. These vials were labeled “variola,” which the CDC calls“the severe and most common form of smallpox.”
The vials were discovered last week in an unused part of a storage room inside a laboratory operated by the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC said in a news release. They were found by employees preparing to move the lab, which has been operated by the FDA since 1972, over to the main FDA campus.
Authorities said there was no indication that anyone had been exposed to smallpox, and they said no risk to workers or the public has been found. The vials originated in the 1950s, according to the CDC. (The last smallpox case in the United States occurred in 1949.)
How could such a thing have happened? Well, the story is that back when researchers were doing work with these viruses back in the 1950s all the scientists had already received the smallpox vaccination and were therefore immune to its effects as were the overwhelming majority of Americans. So it wouldn’t have occurred to them that this was a disease that would be getting out of the lab and doing any damage.
However, today, no one receives smallpox vaccinations in the U.S. because, remember, the disease was wiped out in 1979 worldwide…except for these six vials just waiting to be discovered by people who had no resistance to the disease.
Could have been a disaster but luckily it wasn’t. The vials had been sealed tightly all those years ago and the word is that no one was exposed to the virus. They’ve since been relocated to a locked down facility until the vials can be destroyed, literally killed with fire.