Smallpox In A Big Box With No Locks
    By Josh Bloom | July 10th 2014 07:30 AM | 16 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Josh

    Director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at The American Council on Science and Health in New York since 2010.

    Former research chemist


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    You have to admire the consistency of our government, especially when it comes to protecting us.

    While the TSA is strip-searching 95-year old women in wheelchairs, a janitor tripped over a box of smallpox samples that someone left in an old Budweiser cooler in some closet.

    OK, this may not be strictly accurate. It could have been Bud Lite. And it wasn't really a janitor, but it really doesn't makes much difference in the grand scheme of things.
    What really happened is that a bunch of sealed vials of the smallpox virus—possibly the most deadly pathogen ever—were discovered in a  cardboard box in storage room, unsecured and unlocked. This is not good.

    What makes this incident even more ironic is that about two months ago, the ongoing debate about whether to destroy the "two remaining samples" of the deadly virus resurfaced. Forgive me for being presumptive, but I think this debate needs to be put on hold until we make sure that there aren't more vials sitting around in a birdcage in Cleveland or a bowling alley in Brooklyn.
    At least we are getting good advice. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, called the incident "a reminder to look at every freezer you have now just in case."

    Yep, that's really helpful. I'm gonna take a pass on this one, since there are probably things in my freezer that are more dangerous than smallpox. Plus, the samples weren't even found in a freezer. They were in a chilly storage room—for about 50 years.

    Some of the science is also interesting. For example, people seemed to be concerned whether the virus was alive or dead. The answer is neither. Viruses aren't alive in the first place. And even more puzzling was the decision to test the samples to see if the viruses were viable—capable of infecting cells. 

    The flowchart below highlights my doubts about doing this.

    Perhaps it's because my days in virology research are behind me, but I don't get step #2 at all. What exactly is to be gained by opening the damn things up and testing them? It's too late anyhow. They've already been opened.

    Another scientific jaw dropper: Part of the confusion apparently arose from the vials being labeled "variola" instead of "smallpox." OK- these vials were not found in Burger King. 
    They were found in an FDA lab located on a National Institutes of Health research campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Helooooooo? If you don't know that variola is simply another name for smallpox, perhaps a research job at the FDA wasn't such a great career move. 

    If you're concerned whether these government agencies are now on top of things, the following may or may not be helpful:  FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Rodriguez said “We are carefully examining our policies and procedures regarding the security of our laboratories and storage of biologic specimens. We will ensure the implementation of a corrective action plan to ensure that our biological specimens are inventoried and properly secured.”  Just in time. 

    Of course, this is not an isolated incident. You would have to live in the Bat Cave not to have heard about a similarly inept occurrence less than a month ago when 84 people were exposed to anthrax because of a nearly-superhuman screw up at the CDC's high security Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology laboratory in Atlanta.

    Scientists there were investigating different method of killing the bug. Following the experiments, the "dead" bacteria were checked to make sure they were really dead by using a standard technique in bacteriology—putting the samples on an agar plate to make sure nothing grew. 

    According to Dr. Paul Meechan, environmental health and safety compliance office at the the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) "They waited 24 hours. "They took a look at the plate, and they didn't see any new growth. At that point, they assumed the material was safe."

    Well, this didn't work out all that well. In a rare case of two wrongs making a right, one of the agar plates was mistakenly left in the incubator for a week. Fortunately, in this case dumb was bailed out by dumb luck. As they were preparing to throw out the agar plates, some of the scientists noticed that something was growing on one of the plates. Take a wild guess what this was. 

    Meanwhile, the "dead" samples had already been shipped to two lower security CDC labs— not equipped to handle live anthrax— where scientists were investigating new methods to more rapidly detect the presence of the bacteria in the event of another terrorist attack. This is where the exposures took place.

    Imagine what might have happened if someone didn't notice that one plate: Live anthrax would have been disposed of, and ended up, in some unknown location—maybe my freezer—and the scientists in the other two labs would have probably discovered that something was wrong only after they began doing a Linda Blair.

    And if this weren't bad enough, the anthrax being used was the same deadly strain that was used in the 2001 terrorist attacks

    This would almost be funny if it weren't so serious. Perversely, it is possible that the greatest threat of bioterrorism is coming from our own government. That should make you sleep well tonight. 

    And keep in mind that the ebola outbreak in Uganda—the worst on record, with a 90 percent mortality rate— could be one plane trip from ending up here. Or maybe the bigger risk is from a CDC lab where a bottle of it is sitting in the recycling bin next to an empty can of Dr. Pepper.

    Perhaps the following is unfair, but I'm blaming it on that chicken salad sandwich I once ate in a CDC cafeteria. 


    Worried about a couple of vials ? How about the 100 TONS per year that the Soviets produced during the cold war ? Is it all gone ? How about the 4500 TONS per year of anthrax ? Or the 1500 TONS per year of bubonic plague ? Or the 250 TONS per year of Marburg virus?

    Does anyone believe it was all destroyed ? The Russians never trash anything.

    Josh Bloom
    I'm obviously not worried about a couple of vials (personally), since the chances that I will ever encounter them are about zero. But I'm just taking a wild guess that the chance of accidental exposure from those few vials is probably greater than Russia using any of that against us.  I doubt they would enjoy a nuclear attack very much. If the crazies got their hands on it that would be a much different story. 
     It is more disturbing that twice within a month the CDC has screwed up badly. Either one of those accidents could have turned out a lot worse. I'm calling them out because they should be called out.

     Thanks for writing.
    Josh Bloom
    Hi, Josh ! I read the ACSH newsletter every day.

    Agree on the CDC. Drove by the building yesterday and even the wife commented "wonder what's going to get loose next?"

    Josh Bloom
    That's just too damn funny.
     Glad you read us. We are constantly trying to expand out reach. The more the merrier.
    And should you happen to be a gazillionaire who doesn't know what to do with his money that's the other thing we are always trying to expand.

     Am I a whore, or what? 
    Josh Bloom
    Yeah. Smallpox. That would be the ticket. It would do well as side-dish with Yellen Monetary Policy, ISIS setting up the Caliphate, an Ukrainian national-socialist state and perhaps a meteor strike or two on D.C. Does anyone even have any resistance anymore? Would antivaxers emit cries of anguish just before they keeled over? We might never know.

    Speaking of which, I remember that in 2001, there was this Big War on Stuff Mortal Terror Extravaganza and quite a lot of valuable samples were ordered to be taken out of fridges and destroyed lest they fall into the hand of "terrists". That probably stopped quite a few prospective PhDs dead in their tracks. Have things improved in the meantime?

    Josh Bloom
    Is it safe to assume that you're not overly infatuated with our government and its policies? 
    Josh Bloom
    Do I need to tick additional boxes?

    Also, from not so long ago:

    The sad, but nonetheless, humorous truth underlying the lack of security and control the CDS has regarding dangerous pathogens is frightening . Incidents as this make us more apt to be the victims home grown terrorism related to absolute negligence and stupidity, rather than the victims of international terrorism attacks. How, what and where the government chooses to spend money in protecting its citizens is baffling. How many times will this happen before lives are lost on a large scale?

    Josh Bloom
    Heidi- That's an easy one. One real incident and then they will "fix" it— but in a typical (stupid) government way. 
     Huge quarantine camps for anyone that sneezes is, of course, hyperbole, but something just as conceptually idiotic wouldn't surprise me.  
     And people will be running around in masks that will accomplish nothing except promote more hysteria. 
     Oh- and you might want to buy some stock in all those wonderful dietary supplements that "support your immune system."
     This is what happens when I answer someone when I'm cranky. Or not.
    Josh Bloom
    Whether you are cranky or not, I appreciate your views and your honest assessment of what would likely happen in such a situation. The honesty makes me smile! I very much enjoy your perspective. You are amazing whether you are cranky or not. Cheers!

    Josh Bloom
    Heidi- Are you married?  ;) JB
    Josh Bloom
    Hi Josh, no, I am not married. I am single, but I live with a very demanding puppy named Charlie (he is eight months old) and a very aloof kitty who is 15 years old . . . :) In fact, Charlie and I are eating breakfast right now together, I am having yogurt, and he is chewing on my shoe! Another day in the life . .. :) Are you married? Hey, are you proposing? :)) Have a great day! Heidi

    Josh Bloom
    Heidi- Chewing on your shoe sounds pretty damn good right now. Yes, I am disturbingly single. I don't think I'll be proposing today It's usually wise to wait at least a couple of days.

    Josh Bloom
    Hi Josh, You are correct, although life is short, we only live once, etc. etc. Big decisions should be made only after careful consideration and perhaps a glass of wine. :) I shall therefore not announce my engagement just yet. . . . :)) I will give you a couple of days. :) Hope you are having a wonderful day! I am "catching up" on work, at home.. . grrr. So much for weekends off. Heidi

    In a rare case of two wrongs making a right, one of the agar plates was mistakenly left in the incubator for a week. Fortunately, in this case dumb was bailed out by dumb luck.

    Isn't this comparable to how penicillin was discovered? It seems that science isn't quite as well organized as most scientists would want you to believe.

    Often described as a careless lab technician, Fleming returned from a two-week vacation to find that a mold had developed on an accidentally contaminated staphylococcus culture plate. Upon examination of the mold, he noticed that the culture prevented the growth of staphylococci.

    Josh Bloom
    I guess you could say that there is a similarity. Much of science is serendipity.  But there is quite a large difference between an accidental discovery of a drug and the accidental discovery that a bunch of idiots were not destroying bio weapons properly. 
    Just sayin 
    Josh Bloom