Could A New Storage System Have Prevented the Recent Smallpox Near-Miss?

No one is more dedicated to public health than the NIH and the FDA. But recently some smallpox samples missing from one of their labs sparked horrific scenarios ranging from terrorist threats to a real-life replay of “Outbreak.” Now that the potentially deadly samples were found on the NIH campus in an FDA lab storage room, investigators are asking how they went missing in the first place.

The samples were originally collected in the 1950’s and stored in an NIH lab, long before modern automated storage systems were invented. In 1972 the lab’s operations, including the smallpox samples, were transferred to the FDA. Although the investigators’ report is not yet complete, it does raise the question of how periodic upgrades of storage systems, including AS/RS and RFID technology, might have secured the samples on the lab’s inventory.

There is a happy ending to the story – the recovered smallpox samples were handed over to the CDC, where they were tested and subsequently destroyed: But it’s a reminder of how vital a good storage system can be. The health of the human race might depend on it!


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