(NaturalNews) While preparing to relocate a lab owned and operated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), scientists discovered vials of smallpox that had been stashed away, dating back to the 1950s.
The virus was stored recklessly in six glass vials inside a cardboard box. It was previously thought that this pathogen, "one of the most virulent infectious diseases" known to mankind, was kept only in two places, one at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, and the other at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Novosibirsk, Russia.
According to the CDC's website, the lab in which the virus was discovered was among those transferred from NIH to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1972 and was responsible for regulating biological products. Reports say the vials were immediately secured in a CDC-registered laboratory at the NIH Bethesda campus and flown by a government plane to the agency's high-containment facility in Atlanta.
"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 M. Allen in an email statement to The Washington Post.
Initial testing done by the CDC confirmed the presence of the smallpox-virus DNA, historically known as the "pox" or "red plague." Officials are expected to destroy the virus after they test whether or not it's still active.
"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," reportedThe Washington Post.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which oversees the inspection of facilities holding smallpox, has been notified of the discovery and intends to help with the investigation.
"If viable smallpox is present, WHO will be invited to witness the destruction of these smallpox materials, as has been the precedent for other cases where smallpox samples have been found outside of the two official repositories," according to the CDC's press release.
Smallpox was eradicated after World War II but was successful in claiming the lives of 300-500 million people throughout the 20th century alone. It's believed to have killed around 400,000 Europeans annually during the 18th century, fatally taking the lives of one out of three of those infected.
Once the virus is inhaled, obvious symptoms begin to show around two weeks post infection. "During the incubation period of seven to 17 days, you look and feel healthy and can't infect others," reported the Mayo Clinic.
Following the incubation period, one may experience the sudden onset of symptoms including fever, headache, severe fatigue, severe back pain and overall discomfort. Soon, flat, red spots begin to appear that turn into lesions or blisters filled with clear fluid that eventually scab over, leaving deeply pitted scars.
Last known smallpox case in 1978
The last known case of smallpox occurred in 1978 in Britain, involving a university photographer who was infected during a lab accident.
"The photographer wasn't even in the same room as the disease, but in a lab above, and was infected via the ventilation system," reported Escapist Magazine.
"While it was once routine to have a smallpox vaccination, the treatment proved to have serious side effects in a small percentage of the population. As a consequence, in the US the vaccination program was abandoned in 1972, since at that point the potential consequences of vaccination were more worrying than the disease."
Infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner, finds it "curious beyond belief" that these vials were discovered, considering that "every single research lab in the world was asked to scour their facilities and submit all specimens for accounting and destruction."