WASHINGTON – The FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating “questionable vials” labeled “smallpox” and found in a freezer last night at a Merck facility outside Philadelphia, according to a warning sent to the Department of Homeland Security leadership Tuesday night. .
There were reportedly a total of 15 questionable vials, according to the unclassified “For Official Use Only” alert, a copy of which was obtained from Yahoo News. Five of the vials were labeled as “smallpox” and 10 were labeled as “vaccinia.” The vials were secured immediately.
The discovery of the vials prompted a closure of the facility, which was later canceled. The FBI and CDC have launched investigations that remain ongoing.
Smallpox, a disease caused by the smallpox virus, is considered so deadly that only two laboratories in the world are authorized to store samples of the virus, including one in Russia and the other at the CDC in Atlanta.
Scientists have debated for years whether to destroy any remaining specimens, citing the danger of bad luck that could release a disease that has been eradicated since the 1970s. Those in favor of conserving samples have argued that they are needed to develop new vaccines in response to a new outbreak.
The majority of Americans are not vaccinated against smallpox, and those who were vaccinated would probably now have declining immunity.
The CDC will arrive on site tomorrow to take custody of the vials and transport them to another facility for testing, the alert notes. No personnel were reportedly exposed to the material.
DHS and the FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Editors’ Note: This is an evolving story. It will be updated as new information becomes available.