The National Institutes of Health announced today that vials of the virus that causes smallpox were found in a laboratory on its Bethesda, Maryland, campus, which was unequipped and unapproved to handle the deadly pathogen.
Because it’s so infectious, the smallpox virus is considered a bioterrorism threat and is only permitted in two labs in the world: One at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Atlanta headquarters and another at the VECTOR Institute in Russia. The newly discovered vials violate an international agreement reached in 1979 aimed at keeping the virus eradicated while allowing some scientists to continue studying it.
It’s unclear how long the vials had been in the Bethesda lab’s storage room, which is kept at 5 degrees Fahrenheit. But the boxes holding them may date back to the 1950s, according to CDC spokesman Tom Skinner.