UPDATE: Reports of smallpox-labeled vials at Merck plant contained 'no trace' of virus
Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 by the World Health Organization, after an effort to vaccinate the globe. But several vials labeled as the disease were found at a Pennsylvania vaccine research facility belonging to Merck, when a laboratory worker was cleaning out a freezer.
The CDC released a statement Thursday stating that the vials contained no trace of the virus, but rather, the virus used in the smallpox vaccine, and not variola, the virus that causes smallpox.
“There is no evidence that the vials contain variola virus, the cause of smallpox,” the statement said. “CDC is in close contact with state and local health officials, law enforcement, and the World Health Organization about these findings.”
There’s no indication that anyone was exposed to the vials, the CDC told CNN in an email. The lab worker was wearing gloves and a face mask, and the FBI is now investigating.
The incident is similar to one in 2014, when employees of the National Institutes of Health found six vials of smallpox in an unused storage room while packing up a lab in Bethesda, MD. Two of those vials had viable doses of the virus, but there was no evidence, at the time, that anyone had been exposed to it.
There’s been an ongoing debate among scientists whether or not to keep around samples of the virus. Routine vaccinations against the virus stopped in 1972, CNN said, but some military personnel still get the jab. Meanwhile, boosters are recommended every 3 to 5 years by the CDC.
“Because of concern that variola virus might be used as an agent of bioterrorism, the US government has stockpiled enough smallpox vaccine to vaccinate everyone who would need it if a smallpox outbreak were to occur,” the CDC says on its website. “When there is NO smallpox outbreak, you should get the smallpox vaccine if you are … a lab worker who works with virus that causes smallpox or other viruses that are similar to it.
“When there is a smallpox outbreak, you should get the smallpox vaccine if you are directly exposed to smallpox virus.”
The smallpox vaccine is not administered in a shot, like other vaccines, but rather, given with a two-pronged needle that is dipped into the vaccine solution, then pricks the skin several times. That is not deep but will cause a sore spot, and lead to a red lesion developing in three or four days.
Right now, there are only two labs in the world that are authorized to store the virus, a CDC site in Atlanta and another in Russia.
Neither Merck, nor the CDC responded to requests for comment by Endpoints News as of publication.
Smallpox’s history dates as far back as the 6th century, when an increase in trade between China and Korea brought the virus to Japan. On average, three of every 10 people who contracted the virus died, and those who survived often were left with severe scarring.
In 1959, the WHO started a plan to rid the world of the virus, and cases were eliminated in North America and Europe by 1953. The last person to have active smallpox was a 3-year-old from Bangladesh in 1975, and the last person to die of smallpox was a medical photographer at Birmingham University Medical School. She died in 1978.