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NIH workers upset they weren't told about smallpox

Thursday - 7/10/2014, 12:14pm  ET

BETHESDA, Md. -- Some workers at the National Institutes of Health's Bethesda campus are upset they were not kept in the loop about the deadly smallpox virus found there last week.

Decades-old vials containing the smallpox virus were found in an NIH storage room on July 1.

They were sent to the CDC headquarters in Atlanta for testing and came back positive for the deadly infectious disease. It's unclear of the virus is live, but NIH officials say there was no risk of exposure to their 18,000 employees.

In an email, NIH tells WTOP that since there was no threat, the agency did not notify the workers but did contact health and county officials.

"Careful inspection of the boxes in which the vials were placed indicated that the vials were well-packed, secure, and free of any leakage. Since the finding of the package did not present a safety concern or threat and the vials have been moved to a biosafety lab, NIH leadership notified the Institute and Center directors on Tuesday morning, but did not send a general notification to all employees," the email says.

However, an employee tells The Washington Post that they were kept in the dark and it would have been more responsible to inform them of the discovery.

Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner, D-Potomac-Bethesda, criticized NIH's notification protocol following the superbug outbreak in 2011 when the agency failed to notify the county.

But he says this time, he says he is pleased with the response.

"I received a call first thing yesterday morning from the deputy director advising me of this situation, explaining everything was safe ... and that there was absolutely no danger to anybody," Berliner says.

"I do think they fulfilled their obligation to our county ... Insofar as there was no threat to the community, I do think that it allows them a certain level of discretion. Also there were security implications. They certainly needed to get it off campus and in CDCs control before notifying the public."

However, he says he was not informed that the vials were discovered a week prior.

"I'm a little surprised. That certainly is news to me."

Berliner says it's a good policy to keep employees informed.

"I shared my view that if I were an employee, I'd rather hear directly from NIH… I think that builds morale, builds trust. You're part of a team as opposed to hearing about it on WTOP, of course."

Meanwhile, the CDC and the FDA alerted their employees of the discovery through email by Tuesday night.

The vials will be destroyed once all of the testing is complete.

This is the second time a dangerous substance was mishandled in a month. The CDC accidentally released live anthrax in some of its Atlanta labs in June. Dozens of scientists were offered treatment.

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