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Forgotten Vials Of Smallpox Found In Storage Room In Bethesda

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Meghan McCorkell joined the Eyewitness News team in July 2011 as a...
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BETHESDA, Md. (WJZ) — A startling discovery: vials of the deadly disease smallpox—found right here in Maryland! It happened on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Meghan McCorkell has more on how they were found.

Both the FBI and the CDC are investigating how those forgotten vials of smallpox ended up in a Maryland lab.

Behind the doors of the National Institutes of Health, a shocking discovery was made inside a cardboard box in a storage room: six glass tubes marked “Variola,” the scientific name for smallpox. An FDA researcher found the deadly pathogen.

“It was shocking. We think of smallpox as being limited to two labs in the entire world,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Maryland Health Secretary.

The vials have been taken to a high-containment facility in Georgia.

In a statement, officials at the NIH say, “There is no evidence that any of the vials labeled variola have been breached and onsite biosafety personnel have not identified any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public.”

But Sharfstein says it’s not the end.

“There’s going to be an investigation into exactly how it got there, what happened, just in case there’s any reason to believe it could be anywhere else,” he said.

Smallpox is one of the deadliest diseases known to man, killing one out of every three people. The US stopped vaccinating for smallpox after it was eradicated in 1980.

Some says there needs to be more safeguards for these dangerous illnesses.

“To just find them lying around in a lab…I mean, someone is responsible,” said Dr. Michael Zimring, Mercy Medical Center.

The only two labs authorized to house smallpox are the CDC in Atlanta and another lab in Russia.

Health officials maintain the breach at the NIH poses no risk to the public.

Officials say the vials appear to date back to the 1950s. The last US cases of smallpox was reported in 1949.

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