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Dead letter office: ancient smallpox sample turns up in old US lab

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It's a scene reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark's climax: something very dangerous is put in storage by a government agency, and forgotten. America's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to hose down fears about its control of stockpiles, following the startling discovery of 1950s-era smallpox samples in a cardboard box.

The discovery was first made on July 1, when the National Institutes of Health told the CDC's Division of Select Agents and Toxins that its employees had found the box, containing vials labelled “variola” (the scientific name of smallpox). The box was in “an unused portion of a storage room” in an FDA lab in the NIH's Bethseda campus, the CDC says.

The box and vials had been there a long time: the laboratory and its storage was originally part of the NIH, under whose auspices the samples were originally collected. The lab was transferred to the FDA in 1972, but it didn't seem to get around to cataloguing what was in storage, since the facility has continued operating until now, and the boxes only surfaced during a move to another FDA campus.

After such a long time, there's no guarantee that the samples (confirmed as smallpox by DNA tests) are still viable: the CDC says those tests could take as long as two weeks. After those tests are completed, the samples will be destroyed. Until then, the vials are being stored at the CDC's high-containment facility in Atlanta.

The highly-contagious, disfiguring and dangerous smallpox is one of the world's vaccination successes: in the late 18th century it was the subject of the first vaccine, and after a late 1960s vaccination program, the WHO declared it eradicated in 1980.

Since 1984, the only remaining known stocks of variola were at the CDC's Atlanta facility, and in Russia.

Presuming that there aren't any more cardboard boxes out there. ®

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