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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Loose Box of Smallpox Virus Found in NIH Storeroom

Posted by on Tue, Jul 8, 2014 at 3:51 PM


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that employees at the National Institutes of Health found some vials containing smallpox sitting in a laboratory storage room in Bethesda. These vials were labeled “variola,” which the CDC calls “the severe and most common form of smallpox.” The vials were discovered last week in an unused part of a storage room inside a laboratory operated by the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC said in a news release.


An estimated 300 million people died from smallpox in the 20th century alone. This virulent disease, which kills a third of those it infects, is known to have co-existed with human beings for thousands of years. As the world's population grew, and travel increased, so the virus that Edward Jenner called the "speckled monster" grasped every opportunity to colonise the world.... Smallpox was particularly successful in virgin populations.


"Smallpox was clearly the most serious infectious disease that mankind has endured over history," says Dr. D.A. Henderson, who led the international effort that eradicated smallpox in 1977. The virus can spread easily from one person to the next. History shows it hides in the body for about a week before erupting in a burning fever, convulsions, throbbing pain and terrible blisters all over the body. "What is particularly disturbing to the patient, certainly, is that they're inside of the mouth and over the tongue," Henderson says. "So he has trouble eating, and he has trouble drinking. It's probably the most horrible disease you can imagine." About a third of victims die. Many survivors are left scarred and, sometimes, blind.

The whole fucking world represents a "virgin population" to smallpox these days.

There's been a long and heated debate about whether we should destroy the last known stockpiles of the smallpox virus—held in labs in Russia and the United States—but now it looks like we don't just have to worry about whether we can trust the Russians to destroy their stockpiles if we destroy ours (and vice-versa) but everyone somehow remembering to destroy their unknown, mislaid and forgotten stockpiles of the virus too. Um... yikes?


Comments (32) RSS

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See what happens when pot becomes legal?
Posted by DannyG on July 8, 2014 at 4:05 PM · Report this
dnt trust me 2
"yikes?" is right Dan.

But no worries, take two aspirin and post a Bill Maher or Colbert video. You''l forget about it in the five minutes.
Posted by dnt trust me on July 8, 2014 at 4:12 PM · Report this
This fits in nicely with the science fiction meme of the world ending, not through malevolence, but through stupidity.

I'm not exactly sure when smallpox vaccinations stopped. I know I've had two of them, one for grade school and another for college. The last known case of smallpox "in the wild" was in 1977, so routine vaccinations stopped either shortly before that or soon afterwards. Meanwhile, all the baby boomers and all members of the military have been vaccinated.

More recently, concerned about bioterrorism, CDC approved a new vaccine and stockpiled 192 million doses of it for civilian use. So, not to worry.
Posted by Brooklyn Reader on July 8, 2014 at 4:22 PM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 4
This is sort of horrifying.

I was last vaccinated against smallpox when I was in the military in the early 1980s, but a vast majority of people born over the last 30 years have never been vaccinated. If this shit ever gets loose, we are fucked.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on July 8, 2014 at 5:04 PM · Report this
Oh, yay, Brooklyn. Very comforting. We've got 190 million doses for a population of 317 million...and the disease is contagious for a week before the person has symptoms.
Posted by PinkMotorcyle on July 8, 2014 at 5:42 PM · Report this
Wouldn't the virus have degraded after all those years at those environmental storage conditions?
Posted by jeffy on July 8, 2014 at 6:13 PM · Report this
Yikes is right. Stay calm, deep breath..
Posted by LavaGirl on July 8, 2014 at 6:23 PM · Report this
"Ooooo Lurd my baby is gonna die" I'm not worried. My single gay nonassimilated ass was vaccinated over fifty years ago.
Posted by jeffy on July 8, 2014 at 6:30 PM · Report this
13 Years in an envelope…
Posted by tombaxter on July 8, 2014 at 6:31 PM · Report this
The posters who were vaccinated many years ago are probably just as vulnerable as everyone else. "Smallpox vaccination provides full immunity for 3 to 5 years and decreasing immunity thereafter."…
Posted by wxPDX on July 8, 2014 at 6:43 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 11
"I just want you to know that no matter what you do, you're still gonna die, just like everybody else"

-Rose Castorini
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on July 8, 2014 at 7:16 PM · Report this
@5 That's just the new vaccine. There are still stores of the older vaccine. By the way, the live vaccine is contagious, so you can get a secondary vaccination from someone who was vaccinated a couple days ago.

And, about half the population of the US is over 40, so is probably already vaccinated. The vaccine doesn't convey lifetime immunity, but those people are probably at least partially protected.

Also, the theory is that any outbreak would be in a limited region, hopefully not on both coasts at once, so they could ship the vaccine to where it's needed.

NYC had a smallpox scare in the '40s. An infected traveller showed up. Our public health agency vaccinated the whole city in a couple of days and cut off any epidemic, so it can definitely be done.
Posted by Brooklyn Reader on July 8, 2014 at 7:45 PM · Report this
@12, "probably", "hopefully", and "theory" don't mean a thing.
Posted by sarah70 on July 8, 2014 at 7:58 PM · Report this
Just imagine the science deniers being in charge. Ring around the rosie...
Posted by kwodell on July 8, 2014 at 8:00 PM · Report this
venomlash 15
I say we keep smallpox in carefully-controlled secure laboratories for cautious research. If a related pox emerges as a threat, smallpox could be invaluable as an object of study.
Posted by venomlash on July 8, 2014 at 8:06 PM · Report this
rob! 16
@6, 9: (That was a fun reference, @9; thanks.) —Viruses, even large ones like poxviruses, are much simpler than the next step up in biological organization, bacteria. Basically a Lego-like shell of protein subunits surrounding and protecting their genetic material (DNA, in this case), sometimes with an outer lipid envelope.

Usually when they're prepared and stored for future research, as these originally were, they're somewhat purified (centrifuged and rinsed with simple salt solutions) to get rid of cellular debris from the cells in which they were reproduced; this gets rid of a lot of enzymes that would otherwise attack the viral structures over time.

After measured quantities are put out into the storage vials, they're often dehydrated on a machine called a lyophilizer to leave what looks like just a dried coating of whitish salts on the inside of the vials, then the vials are capped with airtight rubber stoppers and finally receive a further metal seal crimped over the top, like a beer bottle.

Since most biological enzymes evolved to work in aqueous solution, the dehydration step further cripples any contaminating degradative enzymes that survived the purification. The salts tend to stabilize the protein and nucleic acid structures.

In short, even at room temperature, such preparations could remain dangerous for hundreds of years, depending on the virus.
Posted by rob! on July 8, 2014 at 8:13 PM · Report this
rob! 17
@15, I'm okay with that. I've been out of the lab for quite a while now, but I know it's possible to synthesize very long sequences of nucleic acids with high accuracy; that combined with cloning techniques means it either is possible or will be possible to create viruses from scratch just knowing the full genetic sequence.

Making a big show of destroying the last known preparations of virulent smallpox becomes a little like airport-security theatre.
Posted by rob! on July 8, 2014 at 8:22 PM · Report this
Send it over to Russia and Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorist problem solved.
Posted by longwayhome on July 8, 2014 at 9:15 PM · Report this
If this is what it takes to beat back the anti-vaccination folks, ok, run with it.
Posted by Machiavelli was framed on July 8, 2014 at 10:32 PM · Report this
I got vaccinated for varicela about three weeks ago. Health department charged $110 for it, which I thought was kind of steep. If there's an outbreak, we *have* a vaccine for it.
Posted by Gamebird on July 9, 2014 at 5:25 AM · Report this
rob! 21
@20, varicella=chickenpox, one of the herpesvirus family. Variola=smallpox, in the poxvirus family. Confusing nomenclature, I know, but most of the common names for diseases originated before their causative agents had been identified.…
Posted by rob! on July 9, 2014 at 6:23 AM · Report this
Fistique 22
Death is certain.
Posted by Fistique on July 9, 2014 at 6:47 AM · Report this
AFinch 23
@16 - thanks for the lab procedure lesson!

While it's unfortunate that Smallpox still exists, I tend to agree that we're better off keeping a few samples for experimentation in case we need them. Until we get to the point (not too far off I imagine) of synthesizing them, we're better off having something on hand to work with if $Deity forbid, some gets loose.

Small Pox is bad, but it isn't was only eradicated recently....we can survive this getting loose, it's not the super-bug to end the world. If you want to worry about super-bugs, worry about the uncontained ebola outbreak in Guinea (west africa now really)...that sucker is gonna hop on a plane...
Posted by AFinch on July 9, 2014 at 7:41 AM · Report this
I am enjoying all the Republican-esque "I got vaccinated 50 years ago so I'm alright Jack" comments.

I got vaccinated 50 years ago too but if I need a tetanus booster every ten years then I don't think my AARP smallpox cooties are worth squat.
Posted by originalcinner on July 9, 2014 at 7:46 AM · Report this
@23 I would think smallpox is worse than Ebola. It's my understanding that Ebola makes people very sick, very fast. So it's harder for it to spread globally through travel by asymptomatic people who are infected. If smallpox lurks in the body for a week before symptoms appear - think how far and wide people could spread it before they or anyone else knew they were sick?
Posted by Forthepowderroom on July 9, 2014 at 7:55 AM · Report this
AFinch 26
@25 - yes, it might burn out faster, but I believe the transmission rate is higher and mortality is substantially worse. That "burn-out" only happens when it remains somewhat geographically isolated.

Ebola is like 90% mortality vs. 30% for smallpox (smallpox has a hemorrhagic variant which is as deadly as ebola), and I think smallpox gives clearer warnings (the rash) upon reaching the highly contagious stage.
Posted by AFinch on July 9, 2014 at 8:06 AM · Report this
rob! 27
I just ran across a stunning pictorial history of virology, Foundations of Virology, newly revised and available free as an e-book (also in hard copy). It's by Frederick Murphy, DVM, PhD (bio here). The e-version looks great on a big color monitor.

Download (186 MB, 566 pages) from this web page:

Be careful to choose the first red link (right next to the Acrobat .pdf symbol). The second one "(Optimized PDF)" is actually a .doc outline only.

Hard copy info, with some reviews by top virologists, here:…
Posted by rob! on July 9, 2014 at 8:31 AM · Report this
@12 Brooklyn Reader:

NYC had a smallpox scare in the '40s. An infected traveller showed up. Our public health agency vaccinated the whole city in a couple of days and cut off any epidemic, so it can definitely be done.

But they didn't have Jenny McCarthy back then, did they?
Posted by Mr. Happy Sunshine on July 9, 2014 at 8:45 AM · Report this
why not vaccinate everyone now, just in case, with boosters periodically?

everyone used to get vaccinated against smallpox. older people i know all have the scar on their upper arm

in addition to known terrorists, there's the risk of unstable loners as it becomes possible to synthesize genes with equipment that is getting cheap enough to be in schools and smaller colleges
Posted by delta35 on July 9, 2014 at 8:50 AM · Report this
Ebola is much easier to contain however. It's not horrifically contagious, it requires contact with relatively fresh fluids, and transmission generally occurs from inadequate sanitary measures in hospitals (usually reuse of needles and inability to wash hands) and in funeral preparations (which in the area it is endemic requires extensive manipulation of the deceased to remove intestinal contents) - basically, you really got to get in there. Smallpox is, on the other hand, airbourne and highly contagious.
Posted by gnot on July 9, 2014 at 9:07 AM · Report this
@29 Because if chickenpox vaccine is over $100 per person, it isn't cost effective to vaccinate millions of people against a disease that no one has had in decades.
Posted by originalcinner on July 9, 2014 at 9:26 AM · Report this
sissoucat 32

Vaccination for an eradicated illness is an idiocy. Why produce stocks and stocks of variola viruses for vaccination purposes, when there are none left in the wild ?

As for terrorists making spreadable variola virus out of nothing, as you suggest, it's impossible. Making spreadable variola virus out of a variola vaccine solution is quite easy, on the contrary. So, no, having a huge stock of variola vaccine ready, or vaccinating against variola is not a good idea, at all.
Posted by sissoucat on July 9, 2014 at 9:52 AM · Report this

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