An employee at the National Institute of Health recently found vials of Variola virus, the notorious virus strain responsible for causing small pox. Although no reports of the disease have been reported since 1950 (the last case was reported in 1947, New York, U.S.A). It is the deadly form of pox that had plagued and scarred civilizations since the dawn of humanity. But it has been now declared eradicated by successful vaccination programs ever since 1980.
The vials were later examined by CDC and special agents from FBI and were considered untampered. They date back to 1950s and keeping in mind the track record of viruses the viral DNA contained inside those vials can still be virulent and in full possibility of causing an outbreak if released, unless they were deactivated and then stored. According to the CDC the employee(s) who had discovered and handled the vials have been pronounced uninfected. But if they would have leaked out that would have caused a major epidemic for the lack of small pox vaccines today!
The discovery was made by the scientists when they were clearing out an old Food and Drug Administration lab, Bethesda, Maryland to move to a different location. This lab used to serve the NIH before 1972 and the vials can be presumably dubbed their property, forgotten in some dusty corner maybe due to faulty cataloging. However this does not stop speculations and fear of a possible break out. The scientists who found the vials on 1 July notified the Division of Select Agents and Toxins.
CDC is the official repository for smallpox recognized by World Health Organization in the west, the other one being in Novosibirsk, Russia. CDC made a formal statement on Tuesday about the vials being unearthed by the FDA scientists who were charged with moving the lab to a different location from the Maryland campus.CDC also states that the 6 glass vials of freeze- dried viruses are unbreached and still sealed with molten glass. Although the chances are slim, the viruses may as well be dead because the conditions required for their viability were not maintained. They were not cryopreserved or kept in the minimum cold temperature required for their survival. Several tests are now being performed to check their viability which include transformation abilities and tissue cultures. Stephan Monroe, the deputy director of CDC center stated, “The contents of these vials may be inactivated due to the long duration of storage. It cannot be said yet if they are live and virulent without confirmatory tests.”
The Variola virus killed approximately 500 million people during the 20th century alone. The last recorded person to die of this virus was Janet Parker a medical photographer, in 1978. However this is not enough to redress the people of their fear and panic. Smallpox is incurable to the most extent and the survivors are left with disfiguring scars all over their body. The elderly and the children were once most likely to succumb to this deadly disease. In many parts of the world the smallpox was considered a curse and a wrath of god. People were left to die either due to fear, superstition or due to lack of apt medication and treatment. When the third world countries of the world still face threats from hundreds of viral diseases and forms, the new discovery has created quite a stir. The CDC’s formal statement says, “No evidence establishing sure breach of the vials has yet been found. The onsite Biosafety team have found no symptoms or identified any exposure risk to lab workers or even the public.”
The statement also brings more comfort to the people by stating, “WHO (World Health Organization) has been invited to take part in the detailed investigation process regarding the contents of the vial. WHO has also been invited to witness the destruction of the vial and the contents in case viable Variola virus DNA material is found.” This is not the first time WHO will be part of such a process but people and the well wishers of humanity can only hope that this is the last one. With the readily used Chemical bombs and Bio- weapons, the newly unearthed Variola virus surely does push ideas into the creative minds.