Smallpox word cloud
July 9, 2014

Smallpox Vials Discovered In A Federal Lab Closet

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Smallpox is a deadly virus that was all but wiped off the face of the Earth in the late 1970s, but on Tuesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that random bottles of smallpox were found in at a federal lab near Washington, DC. This is the second such announcement within the past month.

In a statement, the CDC said that its employees had stumbled upon “vials labeled ‘variola,’ commonly known as smallpox, in an unused portion of a storage room in a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratory.”

The six vials appeared intact, sealed with melted glass and holding freeze-dried smallpox virus. There was no evidence that lab workers or the larger public are at risk, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told Reuters.

“The vials appear to date from the 1950s,” the CDC statement continued. “Upon discovery, the vials were immediately secured in a CDC-registered select agent containment laboratory in Bethesda, [Maryland]."

The recent discovery follows an incident involving the CDC possibly sending live anthrax specimens to a CDC lab that was ill-prepared to deal with them, potentially subjecting dozens of staff to the pathogen.

Skinner told Reuters that the discovered smallpox vials will be tested to see if the virus is alive and dangerous. After the tests, which may take up to 14 days, the samples will likely be destroyed, he added.

Smallpox has essentially been wiped out for the past 35 years, but the CDC keeps samples of the virus that causes it for research at its facility in Atlanta. Samples of the pathogen are also kept at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk, Russia.

The CDC said it had notified the World Health Organization about the discovery and invited the international organization to observe the destruction of the old specimens.

In April, an investigation into smallpox epidemics revealed that children born during them are more resistant to other pathogens later in life.

In the study, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Germany found children who were conceived during the wave of measles that hit the Canadian province of Quebec in 1714 and 1715 died significantly less often from smallpox 15 years on compared to children who had been conceived before the measles epidemic.

“We have proved that parents can essentially prepare their children for future diseases,” said study author Kai Willführ, a bio-demographer at Max Planck. “The underlying mechanism is not purely genetic, nor is the children’s resistance restricted to single pathogens.”

Past research has referred to this a “functional trans-generational effect.” Parents who encountered an increased disease load during conception gave their children protection against the encountered infection, as well as against different illnesses.

“The way children’s bodies fight diseases seems to be optimized for a world with high pathogen load if it was also high at conception,” Willführ said. “It was only during conception and pregnancy that measles could have given an advantage that parents passed on to the next generation.”


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