According to a CDC media release, vials labeled “Variola”, more commonly known as Smallpox, were found in an unused storage room in a laboratory at the NIH, Bethesda, which was used by the Food and Drug Administration. The laboratory had been shifted and these final materials were being transferred to the new facilities when these vials of variola were stumbled upon. At present, only two facilities are allowed to have stocks of the virus which has been eradicated: one is with the CDC at Atlanta, Georgia, and the other at Novosibirsk, Moscow, Russia.
This finding is a scary reminder of the incident with Janet Parker at a laboratory at the University of Birmingham. In 1978, Janet Parker, a photographer at the University of Birmingham, working in the Department of Anatomy, succumbed to smallpox. It is widely believed that the deadly virus spread through the ventilation ducts and struck the unfortunate Ms. Parker. She ended up giving her mother the disease as there was a slight delay in making the diagnosis; however, she survived the disease but Janet’s father died from cardiac arrest. As a fall out of these, Prof. Henry Bedson, Head of the Department of Medical Microbiology, committed suicide by cutting his throat as he felt personally responsible for the Parker family tragedies.
A similar thing could have easily broken out in Bethesda; the CDC release states:
There is no evidence that any of the vials labeled variola has been breached, and onsite biosafety personnel have not identified any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public… Additional testing of the variola samples is under way to determine if the material in the vials is viable (i.e., can grow in tissue culture). This testing could take up to 2 weeks.
So, till the two weeks are done, there is no way of knowing whether the vials contain viable virus. While there have been repeated requests to destroy the remaining vials of virus from Novosibirsk and Atlanta, neither of the parties have blinked. The very successful smallpox vaccine has now been withdrawn, as a result, making whole generations of human beings have almost no immune strength to retaliate against the smallpox virus. The remaining stocks are to protect mankind from a massive destruction if another missed consignment of Variola vials come out, and end up breaching containment.
Urban legends speak of Egyptian Mummies carrying scabs of smallpox which might act as source of infection. Ships with infected slaves, often were struck with the scourge. They used to be quarantined beyond the ports and sometimes, burned down in the darkness of night. What if in one of these ships, lying in the cold terrains of the ocean floor, there remains a bottle containing scabs of smallpox, which end up getting out (much like that one episode in House MD).
While I personally have always wondered whether the destruction of the vials would be the best thing for humanity or not, incidents like these, no matter how benign they eventually turn out to be, are stark reminders that it would not be too bad to have a bargaining chip (or vial, in this case) on your side if things got nasty.