Smallpox vials found in Merck lab were mislabeled and didn’t actually contain the deadly virus
Vials labeled “smallpox” discovered in a freezer at a Philadelphia lab contain no traces of the deadly virus, federal health officials have revealed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Thursday that testing showed the vials contained “vaccinia, the virus used in smallpox vaccine,” and not the variola virus, which causes smallpox.
The vials “were discovered by accident by a lab worker” who was wearing gloves and a face mask Monday night while cleaning the freezer.
There were a total of 15 vials – five of which were labeled “smallpox” and the other 10 were labeled “vaccinia.”
Smallpox was eradicated in 1980 with a successful mass vaccination campaign after an estimated 300 million people were killed in the 20th century alone.
Samples of the deadly virus are only allowed to be kept in two labs: the CDC headquarters in Atlanta and the Vector Institute in Koltsovo, Russia.
The CDC says vials discovered in a Merck lab in Philadelphia have been mislabeled as “smallpox.” Pictured: A bottle of the smallpox vaccine in 2003
Federal officials say the vials contain “vaccinia, the virus used in the smallpox vaccine,” and not the variola virus, which causes smallpox. Pictured: CDC Headquarters
The discovery was reportedly made at Merck’s Upper Gwenydd facility outside of Philadelphia
Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, told the New York Times that the vials were found at a Merck facility in Montgomery County.
It was not clear why the bottles were in the freezer.
The CDC said it was “in close contact with state and local health officials, law enforcement officers and the World Health Organization” about the findings.
The finding was first reported by Yahoo News, who received a copy of a warning sent to the Department of Homeland Security labeled “For official use only.”
What is smallpox and how does it spread?
Smallpox is a serious, life-threatening disease caused by the variola virus.
A person may not look or feel sick for 7 to 14 days after exposure, but initially symptoms include high fever, headache, back pain, and vomiting.
About a third of people who get the disease die.
After the first symptoms, a rash appears all over the body. The person is most contagious during this stage.
Skin rashes develop in the tongue, mouth, and throat. They then spread to the face and arms, torso and legs.
Pus-filled bumps, also called pustules, form and begin to crust over and fall off over a period of about 10 days.
It was usually spread by prolonged face-to-face due to respiratory particles. The virus was also spread by sharing sheets, towels and clothing.
Source: Cleveland Clinic
After they were discovered, the vials were immediately secured and the facility was locked up which was lifted Wednesday night.
“Merck is trying to figure out why it was there,” the source told NBC on Wednesday
Merck did not immediately respond to a request for comment from DailyMail.com.
“There is no indication that anyone has been exposed to the small number of frozen vials,” a CDC spokesperson told Yahoo.
“The frozen vials labeled ‘smallpox’ were accidentally discovered by a lab worker while cleaning out a freezer at a vaccine research facility in Pennsylvania.”
The discovery took place at the Merck Upper Gwynedd facility in North Wales, about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, according to WCAU.
“CDC, its administrative partners and law enforcement officers are investigating the matter and the contents of the vials appear to be intact. The lab worker who discovered the vials was wearing gloves and a face mask. We will provide more details as they become available,” the spokesperson said.
The incident is likely to raise new questions about what to do with the world’s smallpox samples, which are kept in only two labs in the world.
Smallpox is an infection caused by the variola virus. Patients develop a fever and a characteristic, progressive skin rash, according to the CDC.
Most Americans have not been vaccinated against the disease, and those who have are likely to have dwindling immunity, meaning an outbreak could have devastating consequences.
The vaccine leaves a dime-sized lesion that gradually crusts over and leaves a scar, the CDC says. The lesion is contagious before the scab forms, and those who get it must protect the vaccination site from other parts of their bodies and other people.
The FBI and CDC are investigating Tuesday’s findings. Smallpox is planned to be stored in only two labs in the world: the CDC in Atlanta and a state lab in Russia
In 2014, while clearing out an old storage facility at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland — just outside Washington, D.C. — a government scientist found six-decade-old glass vials containing freeze-dried smallpox, according to the Washington Post.
The samples were wrapped and forgotten in a cardboard box. At the time, it was the first such discovery in the country.
In 2019, an explosion at the Russian state laboratory containing some of the samples sent one worker to the hospital, although the World Health Organization said the explosion did not occur near the supplies. NPR.
Earlier this month, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates said the US and UK should invest “tens of billions” in virus research, including how to potentially prevent smallpox attacks from being unleashed in places like airports, according to Yahoo News.
“So in addition to the climate message and the ongoing fight against disease for the poor, pandemic preparedness is something I’ll be talking about often,” he said in an interview with UK health policy officer Jeremy Hunt.
How was the deadly virus that killed about 300 million people in the 20th century finally eradicated?
The disease causes pus-filled bumps, or pustules, that cover the body. Above, an unidentified man with smallpox in an undated photo
The origin of smallpox is unknown, but the earliest written description of a similar virus appeared in China in the 4th century.
It has typically worked in outbreaks and was brought to North America by European settlers in the 17th century.
About a third of the infected patients died. Those who survived were sometimes left with various scars or even blind.
The “base for vaccination” began in 1796 when English physician Edward Jenner noted that milkmaids who had contracted cowpox were also protected against smallpox, according to the CDC.
In the 19th century, the virus used to make the smallpox vaccine changed from cowpox to vaccinia virus. (Five of the 15 vials found in Philadelphia on Tuesday were labeled “vaccinia.”)
Before the vaccine, variolation was a common method of protection against the virus. People who had never had smallpox took material from infected people’s pimples and scratched it on their arm or inhaled it through their noses to develop immunity.
Smallpox killed about 300 million people in the 20th century before it was eradicated by a massive vaccination campaign. Above, a boy is vaccinated in New York in 1938
In 1948, the virus infected about 50 million people a year around the world, according to the WHO.
Experts estimate that the virus killed about 300 million people in the 20th century.
Soviet scientist Viktor Zhdanov proposed a four-year global vaccination campaign starting in 1959, and the campaign received a worldwide boost in 1966 and 1967, aided by American funds, with the Intensified Eradication Program.
“Laboratories in many countries where smallpox was common were able to produce more, higher-quality freeze-dried vaccine,” the CDC notes.
“Other factors that played a major role in the success of the intensified efforts included the development of the split needle, the establishment of a case-surveillance system and mass vaccination campaigns.”
The last known naturally occurring case occurred in Somalia in 1977. The last natural outbreak in the US was in 1949.
In 1980, the WHO declared that the disease had been eradicated.
At present, most Americans are not vaccinated against the disease, and those who are are likely to have declining immunity, according to Yahoo News.