WASHINGTON — A government scientist cleaning out a storage room at a lab on the NIH Bethesda, Md., campus found decades-old vials of smallpox last week, the second incident involving the mishandling of a highly dangerous pathogen by a federal health agency in a month.
The vials, which appear to date from the 1950s, were flown Sunday night by government plane to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, officials said Tuesday. Initial testing confirmed the presence of smallpox virus DNA. Further testing, which could take up to two weeks, will determine whether the material is live. The samples will be destroyed after the testing is completed.
There is no evidence that any of the vials had been breached or that workers in the lab, which has been used by the Food and Drug Administration for decades, were exposed to infection. Nevertheless, employees apparently had not received official communication about the discovery. One scientist who works in the building and declined to be identified for fear of retaliation said he learned about it when his supervisor read a media report Tuesday.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the CDC’s division of select agents and toxins are investigating. ‘‘Due to the potential bio-safety and bio-security issues involved, the FBI worked with CDC and NIH to ensure safe packaging and secure transport of the materials,’’ said FBI spokesman Christopher Allen.
This is the first time that the deadly virus has been discovered outside the only two facilities in the world where smallpox samples are allowed, by international agreement, to be stored — a highly secure lab at CDC headquarters in Atlanta and a virology and biotechnology research center in Novosibirsk, Russia.
Smallpox vanished from the United States just after World War II and was eradicated globally by 1980. But the disease killed hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century alone.
‘‘It was considered one of the worst things that could happen to a community to have a smallpox outbreak,’’ said Michael Osterholm, a bioterrorism expert and director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. ‘‘It’s a disease that’s had a major impact on human history.’’
There is no cure for smallpox, and historically about one-third of people who contract it die from the disease. Though not as readily contagious as some other diseases, such as influenza, smallpox promises plenty of misery once contracted. Symptoms include high fever, fatigue, and fluid-filled lesions that often ooze and crust over, leaving survivors irreversibly scarred.
Last month, a safety lapse involving three CDC labs in Atlanta led to the accidental release of live anthrax bacteria, an incident that required as many as 84 employees to get a vaccine or take antibiotics as a precaution and resulted in the reassignment of one lab director. Scientists failed to take proper precautions to inactivate bacteria samples before transferring them to other labs not equipped to handle live anthrax. The biggest mystery about the smallpox discovery is how the samples ended up in Building 29A on the NIH campus. The building is an FDA lab, one of several that FDA has operated on the NIH campus since 1972. The vials were discovered while employees were preparing for the lab’s move to the FDA’s main campus at White Oak, Md.