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Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone November 19, 2021

There’s no evidence linking Bill Gates to vials labeled ‘smallpox’ found in lab freezer

If Your Time is short

  • Vials labeled "smallpox" were found in a freezer at a lab in Pennsylvania, not long after Bill Gates cited a smallpox attack in an interview.

  • There is no evidence of a connection between the two events, and the lab find is still under investigation.

  • The CDC said the vials contained a virus that’s used in the smallpox vaccine, not the virus that causes smallpox.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates participated in an interview earlier this month with former British health secretary Jeremy Hunt for the think tank Policy Exchange, where Gates urged more funding for a global research effort to prevent and prepare for the next pandemic.

During the wide-ranging interview, Gates spoke of the need for a World Health Organization task force that could run what he called "germ games," where countries could prepare for bioterror attacks, citing as an example: "What if a bioterrorist brought smallpox to 10 airports."

That interview, coupled with the recent news that vials labeled "smallpox" were found in a Pennsylvania lab several days later, has sparked numerous social media claims suggesting the two are linked.

One Facebook user wrote, "​​Today ... and a week ago... … Smell that?" with a side-by-side image showing headlines about the vial discovery and about Gates’ warning.

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

There is no evidence of a connection.

The vials labeled "smallpox" were found at a Merck lab in Montgomery County, outside Philadelphia, according to NBC Philadelphia. 

The CDC said the government was notified Nov. 15 that several frozen vials labeled "smallpox" were found by a lab worker while cleaning out a freezer in a vaccine research lab in Pennsylvania. No one was exposed to the contents of the vials. 

Laboratory testing at the CDC later showed the vials contained vaccinia, the virus used in the smallpox vaccine, not variola virus, the cause of smallpox.

"CDC is in close contact with state and local health officials, law enforcement, and the World Health Organization about these findings," the agency said.    

The CDC says on its website that there have been no cases of smallpox in the United States since 1949 and that it was declared eradicated by the World Health Assembly in 1980. However, it says research continues in the U.S. on the variola virus to prepare for a potential bioterror attack. The research is overseen by the WHO, and the only two sites where the variola virus can be stored and used for research are the CDC’s site in Atlanta and a site in Russia.

There is no indication that the Gates interview and the finding of the vials a week later are linked, and the post offers no evidence.

The Facebook post uses a headline from an article in the The Independent that reads "Bill Gates warns of smallpox terror attacks as he seeks research funds." 

The headline doesn’t capture the context of Gates' comments. Gates did not warn specifically of a smallpox attack in the interview, a long clip of which can be seen on YouTube (the portion discussing pandemic preparations begins at the 26:50 mark). He did suggest that governments fund more research in a worldwide effort to prepare for the next pandemic, which he said could come from bioterror attacks, citing a smallpox attack at airports as a possible example.

Gates and his philanthropic foundation have been leaders in promoting vaccine research and distribution programs worldwide. They have also been frequent targets of misinformation since the pandemic began. PolitiFact has fact-checked numerous false claims about Gates and vaccines. 

Last month, we debunked a claim that Gates said he wanted to use vaccines to control the population. In August, we rated  False another claim that Gates called for the "withdrawal of all COVID-19 vaccines." In March, we debunked a claim that the COVID-19 vaccine was merely an operating device used by Gates to program humans.

Our ruling

A Facebook post suggests there’s a link between a Bill Gates interview where he mentions possible smallpox attacks and the discovery of vials labeled "smallpox" in a lab freezer in Pennsylvania a week later.

There is no evidence linking the two, and the Gates interview was taken out of context in the headline used in the post. Gates did not warn of a smallpox attack. He simply said there was a need to prepare for the next pandemic, which could happen from a bioterror attack, using a smallpox attack at airports as one example.

We rate this claim False.

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There’s no evidence linking Bill Gates to vials labeled ‘smallpox’ found in lab freezer

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