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NIH Worker: Never Notified About Smallpox Vials Found In Storage Room

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Rick Ritter joined WJZ Eyewitness News in May 2014 as ...
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BETHESDA, Md. (WJZ) — There is new fallout over forgotten vials of the deadly smallpox virus found at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. N.I.H. employees tell WJZ they were never notified about the mistake.

Rick Ritter the latest on the investigation.

A jaw-dropping discovery.

“I was surprised that something like that would be just sitting around,” said Mustafa Ghanen, National Institutes of Health employee.

Inside a high containment lab at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, workers now test vials of one of the deadliest diseases known to man.

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

It was found right here in Maryland.

“Undetected without anyone’s knowledge,” said Ghanen.

It was July 1 when a lab worker at N.I.H. in Bethesda found the smallpox vials. The vials appeared to date back to the 1950s.

Six glass tubes marked “Variola” were found in a storage refrigerator.

“To just find them laying around in a lab…somebody is responsible,” said Dr. Michael Zimring, Mercy Medical Center.

A scientist at N.I.H., Ghanen says he was never told about the disturbing find.

“We did not receive any formal email. It sort of spread by word of mouth,” he said.

It’s been the talk of the campus.

“There’s certainly been a lot of talk about it,” Ghanen said.

The only two labs authorized to house smallpox are the C.D.C. in Atlanta and another lab in Russia. Experts say they’re testing the vials to see if the smallpox can still grow.

“It’s possible, but we don’t know for sure if the smallpox virus in these samples will still be able to grow in laboratory,” said Steve Monroe, who runs the C.D.C.’s division of high consequence pathogen.

After that demonstration, they will destroy them.

“We will destroy it and it will be gone forever,” Monroe said.

But one question still lingers: how could something like this happen?

“I don’t think there was any malicious intent in keeping something like that out there. It must have been some sort of mistake,” said Ghanen.

Health officials maintain the breach at N.I.H. poses no risk to the public.

In a statement, the N.I.H. says the vials found were all still sealed.

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