Friday, December 26, 2014

Look What I Found! - Smallpox and Friends Edition

I don't want to spend a lot of time on this post because most everything that can, has been said about the situation. However, there is a particular point that I really want to make and some venting that I feel like doing.

On 01 July 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notified the Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (When are they going to change their name to the CDCP? Branding nightmare.) that employees discovered vials labeled "variola" in an unused portion of a storage room (how can part of a storage room be unused? I get what they are trying to say, but calling the place where they found smallpox "unused" sort of undercuts the fact that THERE WAS SMALLPOX IN THE ROOM!) at the FDA lab on the NIH campus which was opened in 1972. The vials appear to date from the 1950's.

This here is my main point. How the hell did this happen?!? I can't f'ing stand dirty, unorganized lab space. Most of this is my personality, but part of it is training. The first lab that I worked in was at Aldevron, a biotechnology start up in Fargo, ND. They had just moved into a warehouse at the time so they were still in the process of setting up lab space and organizing. Then I worked in some labs on campus at NDSU, mostly new faculty which again were clean and organized. Fast forward to my PhD again with a new faculty member in a new lab space.
Point being, most of the time I was a large part of the initial setup and organization, and there wasn't a lot of old junk to worry about throwing out, organizing, or worrying about.

Then I worked at a public health lab and it was a completely different story. They kept everything; it was a science hoarders dream. A single drawer in some cases could outfit a science museum. And it was there I understood. People save stuff, all the time. I was zero surprised when they found smallpox, and I will be zero surprised in 20 years when they find polio, or rinderpest, or whatever other eradicated disease is out there. Dirty little secret is that scientists are not clean and organized. Maybe their data, maybe their desk, but certainly not the lab. Very few of them clean the lab space, and keep it organized and most of it is rationalized as a time issue, or "this is taxpayer money so we can't throw it out".

Human nature is definitely something to consider when discussing the "should we destroy the remaining vials or not" topic. Not only is there the potential for it to be used as a weapon (which I think is extremely small) but there is the more likely chance that someone wasn't careful and has it stashed somewhere forgotten. I personally don't think we should destroy the stocks until we can reliably reproduce the virus from DNA sequence, but even if the decision to destroy the last remaining stocks occurs, it probably won't be "the last remaining stocks".
The other thing I find fascinating is the idea that an invasion of another country was justified by selling the idea Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. My guess is 99% of all the other countries in the world have less bioweapons than what has been lost in storage rooms at the NIH and other labs around the country.

Another amazing aspect of this whole ordeal, is the discovery of multiple other substances including ricin, yersinia pestis, staphylococcal enterotoxin, burkholderia pseudomallei, and francessella tuleremia. As if smallpox wasn't bad enough. Ugh. I hate the idea that people can't even be held responsible for knowing what is in their lab. It's YOUR lab. You work with smallpox, etc. how do you not know exactly what is in the lab, and where? It isn't that hard people. But clearly it is.

Last but not least was the string of tweets that occurred once the story broke. I won't go into them here, but I would highly recommend visiting the link.
  • I have a PhD in microbiology and immunology and I am a clinical/public health laboratorian.
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