Vials Labeled “Variola” Found. Could Have Been Worse.

Unless you are from Brazil, the scariest news today may have been the discovery of forgotten, unsecured, vials labeled “variola” (smallpox, to you and me) in an NIH lab.

Hey, at least it was labeled! I’ve been cleaning out my office these past weeks, and if that NIH lab had been anything like my office, the detritus of decades would still be present, but virtually none of it would have been labeled.

One small unlabeled vial
Sitting there, forgotten
One small unlabeled vial
Lurking in the lab
It might be dehydrated spores
Of a weaponized fungus
Just waiting for wars
It might be a virulent pox
An assistant mistakenly
Left in a box
It might be a deadly disease
That could devastate countries
As quick as you please
It might be a parasite fluke
Or an isotope ready
To power a nuke
It might be some chemical goo
That can turn your cheeks’ roses
To cyanide blue
It might be a germ that’s evolved
So an antibiotic’s
A problem that’s solved
It might be the ultimate cure
Unless we uncap it,
We can’t know for sure…
There’s little more frightening, no denial,
Than one small unknown, unlabeled vial

With sincere apologies to everyone’s favorite Uncle Shelby, who did all the heavy lifting.


  1. Raucous Indignation says

    I once found a years old, nearly full, kilogram jar of picric acid in the back of the chemical cabinet. The water that had been added to it to limit it’s explosive nature had long since evaporated. The HazMat Safety Officer came running with the entire response crew when I reported it.

  2. Al Dente says

    I knew there was a reason I went into accounting. The worst thing I ever find is dessicated adding machine ribbons.

  3. Callinectes says

    Potential smallpox outbreak to some, promising zombie camoflage to others.

  4. HFM says

    I’m impressed that whoever left their smallpox lying around at least had the courtesy to label it clearly. FSM knows I’ve seen enough mystery items labeled ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, etc lurking in the back of freezers and cold rooms.

    A few years ago, I dropped a cryovial in the hallway near a high-level containment unit. One of our admins found it and sent an email to the floor, telling us that the missing vial could be retrieved from the coffee cup on her desk… (The safety office was not amused. Fortunately for us both, the vial wasn’t anything dangerous.)

  5. lorn says

    A kilo of picric acid, an explosive find. Scary sensitive stuff once the crystals start growing. But also highly variable. I read an interview with a EOD guy working the Japanese fortifications on a Pacific island where piles of artillery shells left over from WW2 were being made safe. On the one hand he spent a lot of time gently manhandling shells with picric acid dripping out and crystallizing into yellow dendrites to get them to a place where they can be safely burned. On the other hand he mentions that he thinks that random pebbles falling from a cave ceiling onto shells might account for the occasional random explosion heard on the island.

    As I understand it smallpox, way back in the 50s when most everyone in the US, and certainly all the researchers, were vaccinated for it was commonly handled without any special containment or precautions.

    Now, with far fewer immune, a couple of vials being discovered makes the headlines.

  6. dukeofomnium says

    #1: You should have written a book about your adventures. You could call it “The Picric Papers”

  7. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ ^ dukeofomnium : Classic! Thread won.

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