Scientists Moving a Lab Find Forgotten Smallpox

By Kim Smiley

On July 1, 2014, vials marked “variola”, the virus that causes smallpox, were found when a fridge was being cleaned out as part of the effort to move a National Institutes of Health campus to a new location. The vials were immediately secured and a CDC team was dispatched to retrieve the vials. No exposure to smallpox is suspected, but the discovery is still alarming. There are only two heavily secured locations where smallpox is supposed to exist in the world so the fact that vials of a dangerous virus were just sitting forgotten in a fridge has raised many issues that that should be investigated.

This issue can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis method.  To build a Cause Map, the problem is first defined by identifying impacts to the overall goals and then “why” questions are asked to lay out all the causes that contributed to an issue to show the cause-and-effect relationships.  For this example, the safety goal was impacted because there was potential for a smallpox outbreak.  This would be the first box on the Cause Map and more boxes would be added by asking “why”.

So “why” was there potential for a smallpox outbreak?  This occurred because there was a potential for people to be exposed to the smallpox virus and the population has little to no immunity to smallpox.  There was potential for exposure to smallpox because “lost” vials of smallpox were in a fridge in an unsecured lab.  The vials, which were created in 1954, appear to have been in the fridge a long time and somewhere along the way, their presence was forgotten.  Smallpox can survive in refrigeration for a long time and testing has shown that the virus was still viable.  The general population has little immunity to smallpox.  The last smallpox case in the United States was in 1949 and the US stopped vaccinating for smallpox in 1972.

The final step of the Cause Mapping process is to use the Cause Map to develop and implement solutions to  reduce the risk of a similar problem occurring in the future.  In this example, the immediate problem was addressed by moving the vials to a secured lab.  Once scientists are done studying the vials, the contents and all traces of the virus will be destroyed.  Longer-term solutions will likely include ensuring that all  government laboratory storerooms are inventoried to ensure that no other potentially dangerous vials have been “lost”.  Inventory procedures should also be reviewed to ensure they are adequate.

To me, the most worrisome part of this issue is that the vials were only discovered because workers were moving the lab to a new location. It naturally raises questions about what else might be out there and how frequently inventory is happening, or not happening as the case may be.   Investigation into this incident has already uncovered a number of other vials filled with potentially dangerous specimens in the same storage facility.   If any other potentially dangerous vials are “lost” in other locations, I hope we find them before 60 years have passed.

To view a high level Cause Map, click on “Download PDF” above.