A government laboratory in Maryland found vials of smallpox containing numbers of ancient viruses that did not contain the diseases-causing agent that made smallpox truly deadly, but the storage tank holding the dangerous substance was closed and decontaminated anyway, officials said Tuesday.
The closed lab used to store the vials was located in the Department of Health and Human Services’ infectious disease lab on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The labs were shut down soon after the vials were discovered on Saturday.
The samples contained samples from 1924, 1935 and 1941, but scientists have long since overcome the big advantage that centuries of deadly smallpox exposure gave them: The pathogens’ ability to remain infectious for longer than human lifetimes.
Now, however, the collection of pathogenic viruses could have come from animals, perhaps infected from being held in laboratories, or it could have been a “very small piece of contaminating material” that entered the laboratory during more recent operations, said Jack Davies, the director of the government’s Biodefense Research Institute.
Since there was no history of smallpox exposure or widespread human transmission before 1950, the size of the samples could have been reduced over time, he said.
The vials also contained a much-less dangerous combination of viruses that can cause nervous system damage and other illnesses. It “might have something to do with travelers’ diarrhea, it could have been something connected to a dog that suddenly became ill,” Davies said. “It could have been a virus that escaped from some hunter-gatherer group and traveled around in a petri dish.”
The two-page statement from the Department of Health and Human Services detailed how a “collector” at the NIH’s lab disposed of the 40- to 50-year-old vials.
“The specimens were collected during the early days of smallpox’s eradication,” the statement said. “As such, their potential to cause a harmful, infectious disease was minimal.”
Officials said more testing had to be done to confirm that the specimen inside the vials did not contain a deadly virus, and further work was being done on the decontamination. Neither the NIH nor HHS said who had handled the materials inside the vials, which were in a small vial, vial or canister.
“We have identified the sample’s origin and the individuals involved, and they were no longer employed by NIH,” the health department’s statement said. “The samples have been shipped to a trusted third party for further testing, and NIH has initiated voluntary, confidential leave for employees whose responsibilities related to the specimen.”
But all of the findings in the HHS statement were starkly different from the story told the day after the vials were discovered, when it was reported that the smallpox should have been expected to exist for many decades after the last sustained outbreak in 1953.
Davies said he was uncertain of why the lab could not be closed and decontaminated without the risk of contact with the samples. The decontamination equipment on the lab compound is appropriate for all sorts of hazardous fluids, he said.
“My understanding is they have more extensive facilities for disinfecting things than what you would find in a restaurant,” he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH, said he was still reviewing the studies prepared by the inspectors for HHS and Defense, which include methods of arranging for the isolation and decontamination of the potentially hazardous materials within a minute.
Federal investigators and other public health experts will be required to report to HHS Secretary Alex Azar what they find and how they decided to handle the substances, said Paula West, a spokeswoman for the HHS.
“He agrees it was the right decision to take immediate action to protect workers and other people potentially exposed,” West said of Azar.
Bodies of several infected individuals were pulled out of laboratories after World War II and quietly buried, but it was not until 1979 that a virus that caused smallpox caused an actual outbreak for the first time. About 1,800 people, all but a handful of them medical personnel, were infected in Saudi Arabia by an unnamed “conquering virus” that may have been smallpox.