Smallpox fears killed off from U.S. government labs in 1940s, CDC says

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the same vials of smallpox that were reportedly found at a Manhattan laboratory in February have not been connected to the U.S. government’s treatment of the deadly disease from the 1940s.

The vials were discovered in December at a government laboratory by a whistleblower before being taken to a second CDC facility where they were secured and destroyed, Dr. Nancy Cox, the CDC’s director of global security, told reporters during a conference call on Tuesday afternoon.

What turned out to be mislabeled vials of smallpox were apparently placed in storage cabinets by mistake in an effort to clean the facility, said Dr. Cox, who insisted that “no one other than the personnel that maintain the facility had any idea that there was any vials in the cabinet, let alone any way to know” that they may contain smallpox.

“We take this situation very seriously, and we are doing everything we can to understand what happened,” Dr. Cox said.

Federal investigators are looking into how the vials may have been contaminated and used up by the end of 2018, before the maintenance work was completed.

Smallpox, which last surfaced in 2009, was eliminated from the United States because of a concerted government effort. Once the disease started to spread in Europe, with infected children arriving with classmates in suburban schools, the U.S. government went to work, setting up government facilities that became known as the Pathogens Control Center.

The center moved to the Harlem facility on 52nd Street in New York City in 1945.

The vials were found in the same lab on the east bank of the East River that was previously used to store virus samples from the ancient Aedes aegypti mosquito, which causes the common mosquito-borne disease dengue fever, according to Dr. Cox.

A CDC spokesman declined to answer questions about how much of the disease may have been potentially wiped out. Officials would not say whether the vials contained samples of survivors who survived.

A CDC spokesman said investigators are doing everything they can to understand what happened.

The trouble at the lab was first reported by The Washington Post on Saturday.

In a statement, a statement on behalf of Patricia McCauley, a former CDC lab employee, said she reported the discrepancy last year, and blamed it on bad IT equipment. “We do not know if vials containing infectious pathogens or other evidence were destroyed,” she said.

The CDC maintains the lab is well suited to deal with any smallpox samples that might have been discovered in storage, Dr. Cox said, noting that the lab was set up to perform specialized tasks and did so with few employees. The facility had an average of eight employees and three full-time serologist, she said.

When asked whether a CDC employee who was in contact with smallpox samples at the lab during World War II might be considered a potential threat to the public, Dr. Cox said the current situation is different because he had no access to any disease.

Dr. Cox declined to comment on whether any other CDC lab workers have been suspected of handling smallpox, saying that the investigation is ongoing.

In any case, Dr. Cox said, smallpox is not a particular threat to the United States, and any possibility of the virus spreading to other countries does not pose an immediate health threat.

Read the full New York Times report.

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