Vials labeled “smallpox” were found in a Merck & Co. vaccine research facility in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday.
After the vials were found, the Department of Homeland Security sent out an unclassified “For Official Use Only” alert.
According to the alert, 15 “questionable vials,” were found. Five vials were labeled as “smallpox,” and ten were labeled as “vaccinia.” As of Wednesday night, no announcement had been made detailing what the vials actually contained.
A lockdown was imposed when the vials were discovered, which has since been lifted.
“There is no indication that anyone has been exposed to the small number of frozen vials,” the CDC said in a statement
“The frozen vials labeled ‘smallpox’ were incidentally discovered by a laboratory worker while cleaning out a freezer in a facility that conducts vaccine research in Pennsylvania. CDC, its Administration partners and law enforcement are investigating the matter, and the vials’ contents appear intact,” the statement continued.
“The laboratory worker who discovered the vials was wearing gloves and a face mask. We will provide further details as they are available,” the statement said.
Supposedly, the virus is only stored in two places in the world: the CDC in Atlanta and in Russia
Are the careless ways to these labs a major concern?
Dr. Thersa Sweet with Drexel University’s Department of Public Health said the find was a surprise, according to WPVI-TV.
“Frankly, I’m surprised this would happen at someplace like Merck. All of the vials of smallpox that were out in virologists’ freezers were supposed to be disposed of once the disease was considered eradicated,” she said.
“If I had to guess, I would think these vials perhaps were in a freezer that was much older and was overlooked,” Sweet continued.
She said the investigation into the find is important and “transparency coming from both Merck and the CDC will help alleviate people’s fears that there aren’t vials of smallpox all over, which I don’t think there are.”
Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 by the World Health Organization after a massive global vaccination effort. Prior to that, it had killed an estimated 300 million people.
The last known case occurred in 1977, according to Newsweek.
CNN reported, six vials containing the smallpox virus were found in 2014 when National Institute of Health workers discovered them in a storeroom. Two vials contained what was called a viable virus.