Recently, numerous frozen vials carrying a “smallpox” label were discovered at a Merck facility located in Pennsylvania. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has subsequently launched an investigation into the matter.
Per statements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a Merck laboratory worker had been in the process of clearing out a freezer at a Montgomery County facility when the smallpox vials were located.
According to various reports, the worker had been wearing personal protection equipment (PPE), including a face mask and gloves. As of now, no indication suggests that any individual may have been exposed to the vials.
Nonetheless, how the vials arrived to the facility in the first place remains unclear. A total of fifteen suspicious vials were reportedly discovered, ten of which were labeled “vaccinia” and five of which were labeled “smallpox.”
Dr. Angie Nicholas, who serves as the Chief Medical Officer at Einstein Medical Center, weighed in on the suspicious discovery, observing that “we all know what happens to things that get in the back of a freezer.”
“The question is, is it really smallpox or not?” Nicholas questioned, also inquiring how the vials arrived there in the first place if they do indeed contain smallpox.
Nicholas expressed limited optimism in terms of uncovering the real origin of the vials, despite the ongoing FBI investigation.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the bottom of [the investigation] or hear what that final result was,” Nicholas concluded.
The finding is surprising since only two facilities in the entire world have the permission to hold vials of the extremely deadly virus. One facility includes the main CDC laboratory, located in Atlanta, Georgia, whereas the other facility is located in Russia.
Dr. Thersa Sweet, who serves in the Department of Public Health, praised Merck for being “very open” about the discovery of the smallpox vials, as well as for promptly contacting the CDC.
“They contacted the CDC and the CDC is investigating,” Sweet asserted, adding that the “transparency” from both the CDC and Merck will hopefully “alleviate people’s fears that there aren’t vials of smallpox all over.”
“I don’t think there are,” Sweet added.
As part of the FBI’s efforts, investigators will also determine whether or not the smallpox vials should be kept or destroyed.