A lab at a Merck facility outside Philadelphia found 15 “doubtful vials” labeled “smallpox” and “vaccinia” cleaning a freezer earlier this week, causing terrible safety concerns.
The FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating the discovery, which involves a disease that has likely killed more than 300 million people since the twilight of the 20th century.
The Pennsylvania facility that conducts vaccine research is no longer enclosed. The worker was wearing gloves and a face mask when they found the vials, the CDC said.
“There is no indication that anyone was exposed to the small number of frozen vials,” a CDC spokesman told Yahoo News, adding that their “content appears intact.”
Officially, smallpox can be stored only in two places in the world, located in Atlanta and Russia. Other unauthorized specimens should have been delivered or destroyed, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, although a few have appeared elsewhere in recent years.
The disease killed about three in 10 people who contracted it, the CDC says, an unimaginable loss of life. But by the late 20th century, it had been defeated globally, a feat many consider “the greatest achievement in international public health”.
Smallpox remains one of only two officially eradicated diseases, according to the American Society for Microbiology.
Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, suggested to The Inquirer that the vials in Pennsylvania posed a security threat. Someone with bioterrorism plans could have found them and used them.
But people shouldn’t be afraid the vials will cause an outbreak, and even the lab worker who discovered them should be safe, he said.
“For the general public there is no basis for being anxious, even a small amount,” Ebright said.