While preparing for move to a new location, researchers at the US National Institutes of Health discovered a cardboard box inside a storage room refrigerator. To their horror, the vials inside were labeled "variola" — the name of the virus that causes smallpox.
The virus that was supposed to have been eradicated in 1980 doesn't seem to want to go away. It currently exists in only two places, at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, and at the Russian State Research Center of Viology and Biotechnology in Novosibrisk. Recently, scientists couldn't make up their minds about whether or not they should destroy these remaining samples, arguing that crucial questions about the virus remain unanswered.
But as this latest episode attests, there's a good chance that the virus exists undetected elsewhere. Indeed, a similar stock was found in a lab in Eastern Europe in 1990, and more recently at the Swiss Serum and Vaccine Institute in Bern. It could also exist in clandestine labs, or in preserved human tissue. The resulting fear is that the virus could be weaponized — a concern that may be warranted.
The fridge containing the variola specimens actually belongs to the US Food and Drug Administration, which has conducted research at the NIH Bethesda site since the early 1970s. The vials appear to date from the 1950s.
Safety officials say the virus did not leak and that there's no danger to the employees who found it. The samples were subsequently flown to Atlanta, Georgia, where researchers confirmed that the powder in the vials did indeed contain the variola virus DNA. They're now trying to determine whether or not it's still viable.