60-Year-Old Smallpox Stash is Under Control but “Clearly Unacceptable”

The FDA announced that the remaining 279 biological samples from a stash of 12 boxes containing variola smallpox specimens, which were discovered in a cold storage space of an FDA lab on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus, have been handed over to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Bioforensic Analysis Center for safeguarding. The FDA release criticizes overlooking the collection of biological samples as “clearly unacceptable,” and reports that the FDA is taking steps to ensure that similar undiscovered collections are not hidden within other cold storage spaces.


The samples, which contained vials labeled as dengue, influenza, Q fever, rickettsia, variola, and vaccinia, are thought to date from a period between 1946 and 1964. The initial CDC media statement on the discovery, which only discussed the discovery of the variola samples and not the remaining 321 vials, described the FDA lab where they were found as an unused portion of the NIH campus. Shortly after the discovery, the variola samples were sent the CDC’s high-containment facility in Atlanta where they were tested to determine if the samples were viable, or able to grow in a tissue culture. CNN reported that at least two of the vials contained viable samples of the deadly virus.


The FDA report indicates that along with six samples of variola, ten samples with unclear labeling were also flown by government aircraft to the high-contaminate facility. An additional 32 samples were destroyed at the NIH facility, 28 of which were labeled as vaccinia, the virus that is used to make the smallpox vaccine. According to the FDA, the remaining 279 vials, which were transferred for safeguarding, did not contain any smallpox samples.


The FDA is reviewing all of its cold storage spaces to see if any other hazardous sample collections are being overlooked. The 327 samples found at the facility were packaged carefully in heat-sealed glass vials in accordance with standards of that time period, which have long since been changed. Despite the fact that the samples were stored in an antiquated manner, no one was harmed by the substances and the vials are now in safe custody. Although the scare has been handled without further incident, the FDA is acting proactively to prevent similar future discoveries.