Smallpox vials found at Philadelphia university research facility

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Hazardous chemicals discovered inside building at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania, the health department said

Hazardous chemicals were found inside a building housing a high-level biological and chemical defence research facility in the Philadelphia suburbs over the weekend, the health department said.

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Philly.com reported that 21 vials labeled “smallpox” were found at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania, a private high-level facility used by the National Institutes of Health and dozens of universities and research organisations.

However, the state department of health told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the vials did not contain the disease and there was no danger to workers or the general public.

It wasn’t clear where the vials came from or who may have handled them. In a statement, the state health department said: “[A] laboratory in the facility reported finding 22 smallpox vials on Friday, December 21st, but additional tests have not yet confirmed their status. This is standard practice for any unused medical waste that may not require safe disposal at this time.”

The vials were sealed and sealed another way and are not dangerous, a spokesman for the National Institutes of Health said.

Tom Murphy, president of the security and consulting firm SANS Institute, told the Inquirer: “It’s not uncommon for labs to have these situations, whether it’s old technology or outdated protocols. These guys [the labs] do it more than any one else.”

Samples of smallpox, the most common strain of the virus that causes the disease, have been kept in a national laboratory in Rockville, Maryland, since 1993 and are stored in “super-sophisticated” labs, Murphy said.

Vials containing smallpox in the national lab have been stored in ‘super-sophisticated’ labs since 1993. Photograph: Stuart Ramson/AP

A spokeswoman for the institute said it is cooperating with the health department and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Large-scale containment, a type of biological warfare procedure that uses various methods of isolation, is used in many clinical settings.

Samples that test positive for the smallpox virus are isolated and sent to an arm of the CDC, which reports the results of each analysis to the Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of Defense and the US military.

A government source speaking on condition of anonymity said that the anthrax research program at the University of Pennsylvania, where the vials of smallpox were discovered, is “a very bad, old and dangerous facility” and relies on remote systems that require workers’ training to use.

The University of Pennsylvania released a statement on its website noting that no injuries were reported.

“The virus was found in a place of use, a place where scientists work,” the university said. “No other persons or facilities were affected.”

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