Vials labeled ‘Smalpox’ are available from the Pennsylvania Laboratory

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating the discovery of vials labeled “smallpox” in a Pennsylvania lab, the health agency said Thursday.

The frozen vials “were accidentally discovered by a lab employee while cleaning a freezer at a facility conducting vaccine research in Pennsylvania,” Belsie González, a spokeswoman for the CDC, said in an email Thursday.

She added that the CDC was working with law enforcement officials to examine the vials. The agency said the vials appeared to be intact.

“The lab employee who discovered the vials was wearing gloves and a face mask,” she said. ‘There is nothing to suggest that anyone has been exposed to the small number of frozen vials. We will provide further details when they become available. “

The CDC did not say where in Pennsylvania the vials were discovered, or how many there were.

Mark O’Neill, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said a “small number of vials” were found at a Merck plant in Montgomery County, outside Philadelphia.

Merck did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. The FBI referred inquiries to the CDC

“The Pennsylvania Department of Health would like to emphasize that there has been no known threat to public health and safety,” said Mr. O’Neill. “As referenced by the CDC, there is no indication that anyone has been exposed to the small number of frozen vials labeled ‘smallpox’.”

Referring to a statement from the state Department of Health, Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Office of Communications, said there were a total of “15 questionable vials” with five labeled “smallpox” and 10 as “vaccinia.”

Smallpox, an infectious disease caused by the variola virus, caused devastating outbreaks for centuries, with about three out of 10 cases being fatal, according to the CDC

Symptoms include a very high fever and a blistering, progressive skin rash.

The virus cost 300 million people their lives in the 20th century, according to the World Health Organization.

In the event of an outbreak, the CDC said, “there is enough smallpox vaccine to vaccinate every person in the United States.”

The agency said the last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States was in 1949. The last known natural case was in Somalia in 1977, according to the WHO

The WHO said there were two authorized stocks of variola virus stocks, with the CDC in Atlanta and at a research center in Russia. That year, six vials containing smallpox virus were found in a storage room of a government laboratory outside Washington. At the time, the CDC said there was no indication that laboratory workers or the public had been exposed to the contents.

The CDC said that smallpox research in the United States focused on the development of vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic tests to protect people from smallpox in the event that it is used for bioterrorism.

Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said smallpox can be fatal “even after being lyophilized.”

He said that because of its highly contagious nature, “the virus itself must be kept cold.” At room temperature after many years, he said, it was “unlikely that the virus would retain any ability to infect humans.”

Dr. Glatter added that there had been an ongoing debate about whether governments should keep viral samples or remove all known copies of the virus.

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