The government has retracted lab findings about smallpox that were last week reported by the Associated Press, saying new information suggests vials of the deadly virus may not have held the highly contagious disease.
“The original lab results found evidence that the specimens in question could have contained the smallpox virus,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement. “Vials were not transferred, tested, or demonstrated to contain smallpox.”
On Friday, the Associated Press reported that a CDC lab, which handles highly infectious samples, had collected vials of smallpox from a lab where the samples were stashed in 1989 and stored them in a freezer. The vaccine for smallpox was in the vials but, per CDC protocol, they did not contain the virus.
The AP said the CDC, while dismissing the existence of the vials, conducted a “back-up analysis” showing the evidence that some of the samples could have contained smallpox was based on the “tweaks made to the model” used to report the study results.
In the statement, CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald, who has come under fire for her handling of the episode, said that the original lab results were corrected.
“While this does not necessarily exonerate my leadership and the CDC, it does illustrate the caution and transparency that should be in place to ensure that the same mistakes do not happen again,” Fitzgerald said.
The tests were conducted by a team of experts at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, who did not disclose the details of the corrections. On Friday, NIAID said they were following the protocols established by the CDC, who had no “direct involvement”.
Many questioned why the CDC did not contact state health officials, who would be charged with the handling of and control of a highly contagious disease.
Karen Gelman, the deputy director of emergency preparedness at the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), said health officials “have a responsibility to follow protocol in this very serious situation”.
“There may be a precautionary approach that may involve some short-term steps involving multiple laboratories and public health officials in order to prevent a public exposure,” Gelman added.
The government was not clear about the number of vials from the lab where the smallpox samples were stored. The smaller cell samples from the 1986, 1993 and 2003 units were all removed from the freezer to replicate how the laboratory would have been able to handle smallpox today, according to the AP.
Jeffrey Koplan, the director of NIAID until 2015, said he had never heard of a laboratory conducting such analyses. “I’m completely flabbergasted that it would occur,” Koplan said.
An NIAID spokesman, Howard Koh, said the analysis, conducted in November 2017, was in response to “certain interpretations of the information that was released” about the smallpox samples.
Fitzgerald said she was not aware of the analysis until Friday, adding that any information about the “agency’s response or the disposition of the samples” should be brought to her attention.