A scenario ripe for a zombie horror movie has just happened. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed on Tuesday that vials labeled “smallpox” — an extremely deadly virus eradicated in the 1970s — were found at a vaccine research facility in Pennsylvania. Despite the scary find, officials say there’s no evidence anyone has been exposed to the pathogen.
According to the CDC, the frozen vials were found by a lab worker while cleaning out a freezer. The vials do not appear to have been opened and the employee was wearing gloves and a face mask at the time of the discovery. The facility is one of several conducting vaccine research for the CDC.
“There is no evidence that anyone has been exposed to the small number of frozen vials,” the CDC says said in a statement to CNN. “CDC, its administrative partners and law enforcement officers are investigating the matter and the contents of the vials appear to be intact.”
The CDC will move the vials to another location on Wednesday for testing. Yahoo News reported, citing a warning sent to the Department of Homeland Security leadership. According to the DHS warning that Yahoo News saw, there were 15 vials; five were labeled “smallpox” and 10 were labeled “vaccinia.”
Smallpox, named for the characteristic smallpox drops it causes on the skin, is one of the most terrifying germs to plague mankind. It has been responsible for numerous epidemics and is estimated have killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone. However, the virus was also the first to be beaten back by vaccination, when the technique of inoculation was improved and popularized by Edward Jenner in the late 18th century. The disease was finally eradicated worldwide in 1977, a feat aided by the fact that humans are the only known natural host of smallpox.
Although smallpox has (probably) disappeared from the wild, there are still legal samples of the virus in select labs in the US and Russia — a decision that has generated its fair share of controversy. Discoveries of undocumented smallpox have been made in recent years, such as when employees of the National Institutes of Health found it six bottles preserved from the 1950s during a move. Two of these vials were later found to contain viable virus, although no cases of smallpox occurred.
As scary as the accidental release of smallpox would be, smallpox vaccines are available, although they are only given to people who are at risk for exposure, such as certain lab workers. Today, Americans are no longer routinely vaccinated against smallpox. In 2018, the Food and Drug approved the drug tecovirimat as the first antiviral drug specifically intended to treat smallpox, based on data from lab tests on smallpox and its cousins.
There are occasional cases of other related illnesses in the US, such as: monkeypox and Alaska smallpox, although none of these are as serious or common as smallpox was in its heyday.