In every one of the dozens of bioterrorism meetings I have attended over the last three decades, experts have stated unequivocally that the worst-case outbreak scenario would be smallpox in the hands of bad guys. And the most alarming other microbial possibilities that follow? Well, anthrax was always somewhere in the top five.
And this is why, as political leaders were repeatedly told over the years, scientists needed to safely store these dangerous microbes in high-security labs, conducting their work with these germs under the tightest security possible to ensure protection of public safety. The safest laboratories, we were repeatedly informed, were the Ivanovsky Institute of Virology in Moscow, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.
Safe there -- nothing to worry about.
But last week, while most Americans were taking time off to celebrate the July Fourth holiday, scientists were secretly scrambling at the NIH and CDC to identify, seal, and transport six vials of smallpox that were discovered in a storeroom at the National Institutes of Health, tipped over on their sides, cotton stoppers protruding.