Smallpox: The long goodbye

Jeanne Guillemin in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

ScreenHunter_731 Jul. 27 20.41Last week, six vials of smallpox virus were discovered in a disused closet at the National Institutes of Health, where they had lain, forgotten and misplaced, for over 30 years. Some of them were found to contain live specimens, meaning that this dangerous virus—once considered to have been eradicated from the face of the planet—had the capacity to infect and spread.

At nearly the same time, on July 16, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas Frieden, admitted to a Congressional committee that he was advised of a somewhat similar blunder at the CDC, more than two months after its discovery. (Members of the CDC had accidentally contaminated an innocuous strain of avian influenza with the dangerous H5N1 strain and shipped this unknown hazard to a less secure laboratory.) And not long before, dozens of CDC lab employees had been exposed to virulent anthrax bacteria.

These incidents raise doubts about government vigilance, with the case of the misplaced smallpox vials being arguably the most shocking, because the 1979 global eradication of smallpox is rightly celebrated as one of the most important public health achievements in history.

More here.

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