Diseases photo
James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Last week, we learned that U.S. government scientists found six vials of smallpox virus that they didn’t know they had. Because the virus is so deadly, only two labs in the world are supposed to hold samples of it. Other labs are not prepared to secure the vials as well as they should.

Although nobody got sick from the smallpox discovery, it was an unsettling mistake for what were supposed to be some of the most secure labs in the world. Since then, there’s been a lot of activity—and a few new revelations—at the U.S. agencies that deal with deadly pathogens. Here’s the rundown:

  1. Scientists determined some of the 60-year-old forgotten smallpox vials contained virus that was still “alive” enough to reproduce. This means that if other facilities around the world also have forgotten smallpox samples—a likely scenario—those may also be alive enough to cause illness.

  2. Top leadership at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention learned that CDC workers had accidentally shipped virulent H5N1 to another federal lab. Prior to the smallpox incident, lapses in lab procedures meant dozens of CDC workers could have been exposed to anthrax.

No one has fallen ill from any of these mistakes, but they are serious and troubling.

  1. The CDC temporarily closed its flu and anthrax labs. It also temporarily stopped shipping certain pathogens.

  2. The National Institutes of Health plans to reconvene the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which hasn’t met in almost two years.

  3. A House of Representatives committee questioned CDC Director Tom Frieden about the agency’s recent security lapses. Frieden said that the CDC needs to improve its “culture of safety.”

  4. The CDC revealed that federal scientists had discovered 327 vials of decades-old, forgotten samples labeled as pathogens such as dengue, influenza, Q fever and rickettsia. The samples were discovered in the same area as the forgotten smallpox vials. All the vials were well sealed and free of leakage.