U.S. bioterror readiness highlighted after NIH smallpox discovery

The discovery of vials of "variola," commonly known as smallpox, in a storage room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, has raised new concerns that the virus could be used in a bioterrorism attack.

Routine smallpox vaccination of Americans stopped in 1972 after the disease was eradicated in the U.S. decades before. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. government only provided the vaccine to a few hundred scientists and medical professionals working with smallpox and similar viruses in a research setting.

But after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in September 2001, the U.S. government ramped up efforts to bolster its level of preparedness against terrorism, including designing a response plan to an intentional release of the smallpox virus. Now, the government has enough smallpox vaccine to vaccinate every person in the U.S. in the event of a smallpox emergency, according to the CDC.

Then there's Chimerix ($CMRX), which is working with the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to develop brincidofovir as a counterterrorism agent that could be used against a smallpox outbreak.

The newly discovered smallpox vials, which likely date from the 1950s, were found in an unused portion of a storage room in a lab run by the Food and Drug Administration, according to a July 8 statement released by the CDC. The laboratory was transferred from NIH to FDA in 1972, when the FDA also became responsible for regulating biologic products.

On July 1, NIH notified the CDC's Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT), which oversees the possession, use and transfer of biological agents and toxins that could pose a severe threat to public health and safety. CDC officials say the discovery does not pose a health threat to the lab workers or the public.

Currently, the CDC is testing the samples to determine whether the virus in the vials is still viable, that is, if can grow in tissue culture. After the testing, which could take up to two weeks, the CDC says the samples will be destroyed.

- read the CDC statement