Our sister site, CODEWIRE, has learned that sealed vials containing a deadly human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) were among the old microfilm boxes examined by a forensic scientist who was called in by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to investigate mishandling of one of its old laboratory materials. The CDC in Atlanta has accused a contractor of mishandling the paperwork for the materials and that the material was improperly labeled and mixed with something else before being opened for investigation.
However, according to the paper, the forensic scientist, Sean Ho, states that the former materials appeared to have been sealed for several decades; therefore, there was no risk of contamination when re-opening the materials. For his observation, Ho received a meeting with CDC management. According to Ho, he was also called back to review reassembled exhibits by a CDC forensic scientist who was re-opening some of the material with which they had been contaminated when the lab was closed.
Here is the statement by the CDC on the matter. We will continue to monitor the situation, as it develops.
This is the CDC’s version of events:
“It was determined that the lab had stored loose material which came from the 1960s before it was transferred to an offsite facility. A detective from the Atlanta Police Department was able to positively identify the paper material as containing smallpox. When the material was opened, it contained some virus from the 1960s and some from the 1980s.”
Healthcare workers who handled smallpox immediately became ill.
A CDC scientist who opened the contents of the vials last October did not understand the terms “smallpox” and “virus,” though further analysis on the material has since concluded that it did contain smallpox and not virus.
The material examined by Ho came from the CDC’s Eastern Pathogens Laboratory, which was located near a containment lab during the Cold War, according to Ho. The material for further study was stored in non-sterile containers and later stored in storage facilities. Ho was called in to analyze the materials by the CDC in November 2018.
“The forensic team was called back in early January to re-open the material with the CDC investigative staff. The discovery of smallpox suggests that there was a failure to compartmentalize the material and this document may have been mistakenly moved into the writing process. Several companies are now being asked to review materials and to determine how this could have happened.”
The smallpox first came under CDC protection in the 1970s. According to the CDC, smallpox had been “considered eradicated” by 1985 when HHS Secretary Tom Ridge announced that the disease was history. But the virus could remain in the environment and again resurface as something much more lethal.
Smallpox has been eradicated. After three fatal outbreaks, multiple attempts were made to eradicate the virus. This ultimately involved destruction of all infectious materials.