In 1979, when the World Health Assembly announced victory over the global scourge called small pox, the call went out to gather and destroy all remaining samples of the variola virus from every laboratory in the world.
Small pox is the only human disease ever declared eradicated.
Until now, the only known samples of the virus were at high-security labs at the C.D.C. in Atlanta and in Russia. — The New York Times
But somehow they missed six vials of the highly-infectious agent that slaughtered 300-500 million people in the 20th century; the contagion that, as late as 1967, killed two million people worldwide. Those who didn’t die were often left scarred and blind.
On July 1, 2014, our government stumbled upon Pandora’s box in a laboratory storeroom.
The vials appear to date from the 1950s. Responsibility for the laboratory where they were found was transferred to the F.D.A. from the National Institutes of Health in 1972. The vials were discovered when scientists were preparing to move the lab to the F.D.A.’s main campus.
What happened next may be standard operating procedure at the Centers for Disease Control, but to the layperson this sounds insane: They opened the vials.
That’s right. The just had to confirm that the vials labeled variola, in fact contained the small pox virus. Stranger still, they’re doing additional testing to determine if the virus in the vials is viable — after which they plan to destroy the samples.
This looks like one of those movie scenes that has the audience shouting at the screen: “Destroy it! Destroy it now, before it grows!”
Such movies rarely end well. But don’t worry, your government has everything under control. It’s very unlikely that the recent anthrax exposure incident would repeat itself with the small pox virus.