Last week, the federal government announced that it stumbled upon a little bit of smallpox in a closet during an office move. This small specimen of one of the deadliest diseases in human history, which was wholly unaccounted for and found during an office move, had to be tested to find out exactly how dangerous it was. Because, believe it or not, things can get more dangerous than losing track of smallpox like a communal office bottle of coffee creamer.

It was alive and viable! Live and possibly growing smallpox in what amounts to a minifridge in a government building. No bigs:

At least two of the vials employees at the National Institutes of Health found in an unused storage room earlier this month contain viable samples of the deadly smallpox virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

Employees found six forgotten vials when they were preparing to move a lab from the Food and Drug Administration’s Bethesda, Maryland, campus to a different location. The laboratory had been used by the NIH but was transferred to the FDA in 1972…

On Monday, law enforcement agencies transferred the vials to the CDC’s high-containment facility in Atlanta. The CDC is one of only two official World Health Organization designated repositories for smallpox.

CDC Director Tom Frieden said his scientists worked through the night on the samples as soon as they got them. Testing confirmed that there was variola DNA in the vials.

Additional test results showed “evidence of growth” in samples from two of the vials, suggesting that the smallpox virus is alive.


And, that isn’t all! The FDA’s statement:

The investigation found 12 boxes containing a total of 327 carefully packaged vials labeled with names of various biological agents such as dengue, influenza, Q fever, and rickettsia. Upon the discovery of these vials on July 1, 2014, FDA employees followed standard protocol and turned them all over to the appropriate NIH safety program officials, who in turn transferred them to the appropriate investigative agencies, as per standard protocols.


FDA also announces it will be doing an exhaustive minifridge inventory to make sure no one’s keeping the plague behind some skunky Yuengling.

While an investigation continues regarding the origin of these samples, this collection was most likely assembled between 1946 and 1964 when standards for work with and storage of biological specimens were very different from those used today. All of the items labeled as infectious agents found in the collection of samples were stored in glass, heat-sealed vials that were well-packed, intact, and free of any leakage, and there is no evidence that anyone was exposed to these agents.

Overlooking such a sample collection is clearly unacceptable. The FDA has already taken steps to ensure that similar material is not present in its other cold storage areas by initiating a thorough review of all common cold storage spaces. The agency is in the process of reviewing its policies and procedures in order to implement a corrective action plan so that potentially hazardous samples are never overlooked in the future.

The smallpox incident is the third dangerous disease flub made by federal government over the last three months. The first involved the potential exposure of 75 employees to anthrax. In the second, the CDC shipped a strain of very dangerous avian flu to the Department of Agriculture thinking it was a more innocuous animal flu virus.

There are now some new rules for dealing with dangerous diseases, though it doesn’t seem employees were adhering to the original rules, so I’m not sure what difference it will make. But a moratorium on FedExing deadly agents around sounds good until we figure out the root of the problem:

Following a string of public-safety scares, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be shutting down two research labs, temporarily stopping all transfers of samples from high-level biosafety labs and strengthening its laboratory safety precautions, the CDC announced in a report Friday.

“This is a wake-up call,” CDC director Tom Frieden, said in a press conference Friday. “These events should never have happened, and they tell us we have to make significant improvements.” …

The CDC will be implementing a moratorium — or complete stop of the transfers of samples — on all biosafety level 3 and 4 labs, which contain the highest level of pathogenic samples, until all labs are fully assessed. Frieden said he has also appointed Michael Bell to the position of Director of Lab Safety, which will oversee a team of lab safety evaluators as well as look into the training of lab staff in appropriate procedures. Frieden said the CDC will also be taking disciplinary action against CDC staff who knowingly didn’t follow protocol or report incidents.

Correction: Changed the headline to remove “alive.”