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A Box of Forgotten Smallpox Vials Was Just Found In an FDA Closet 120

Posted by Soulskill
from the thanks-for-making-me-feel-safe dept.
Jason Koebler writes: The last remaining strains of smallpox are kept in highly protected government laboratories in Russia and at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. And, apparently, in a dusty cardboard box in an old storage room in Maryland. The CDC said today that government workers had found six freeze-dried vials of the Variola virus, which causes smallpox, in a storage room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland last week. Each test tube had a label on it that said "variola," which was a tip-off, but the agency did genetic testing to confirm that the viruses were, in fact, smallpox.
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A Box of Forgotten Smallpox Vials Was Just Found In an FDA Closet

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @07:16PM (#47411555)

    Forgetting my car keys was a big deal....

    • That probably depends on whether your car keys have ever exterminated entire native civilizations. But that's a question you'll have to answer yourself.
      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @08:04PM (#47411867) Journal
        It didn't exterminate entire civilizations: leaving a pitiful remnant of shell-shocked survivors to envy the dead and wonder why their gods had forsaken them amidst the ruins of their culture is an important part of the smallpox outreach approach!
        • Re:And I thought (Score:5, Informative)

          by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @09:09PM (#47412177)

          It didn't exterminate entire civilizations

          Actually, some ethnic groups are believed to have been completely exterminated by smallpox. For instance, the Beothuk tribe of Newfoundland, had only one survivor of a smallpox epidemic, and she later died with no offspring. Smallpox first spread through the Americas in the early 1500s, when most tribes were pre-literate, so there are probably some other exterminated tribes that are lost to history.

        • by konaya (2617279)

          (...) leaving a pitiful remnant of shell-shocked survivors to envy the dead and wonder why their gods had forsaken them amidst the ruins of their culture (...)

          If this doesn't count as exterminating a civilisation, I'm not sure what would.

    • by geniice (1336589)

      Cleaning out old lab stores is always interesting. Open the wrong thing you end up up breathing hydrogen chloride. Mind you the worst I've ever found is sodium cyanide. Others have found human heads.

      • by Anonymous Coward
        Well, if you ever see a bottle labeled "dimethylmercury", just back away very slowly, and then run for your life. You could also call for help while you're at it.
    • by jittles (1613415)

      Forgetting my car keys was a big deal....

      Sorry guys. My bad. I thought I had taken those samples with me when I moved back to my home country of Iraq. -- Sadam

  • Um.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by roc97007 (608802) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @07:22PM (#47411587) Journal

    > And, apparently, in a dusty cardboard box in an old storage room in Maryland.

    And, who knows? Maybe a dozen other places. How did that rule of thumb go? For every security breach you find, there's probably several you didn't find.

    • Re:Um.... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sumdumass (711423) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @07:38PM (#47411685) Journal

      Well, this should be kept in mind every time someone says "we've eradicated disease X, lets destroy the lab samples".

      http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/artic... [cdc.gov]

    • Re:Um.... (Score:5, Funny)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @07:47PM (#47411757) Journal
      Wasn't the rule of thumb "Take off and nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."?
    • by Stargoat (658863)

      Considering how many doctors used to inoculate for smallpox, a lot. There's probably envelopes containing spores in old collections. Hope they're dead.

      • Re:Um.... (Score:4, Informative)

        by roc97007 (608802) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @08:00PM (#47411843) Journal

        Considering how many doctors used to inoculate for smallpox, a lot. There's probably envelopes containing spores in old collections. Hope they're dead.

        Wait, I was alive during that time -- the smallpox vaccine wasn't made from smallpox, it was made from cowpox. So samples of the vaccine would not be smallpox, dead or otherwise. Samples of smallpox would be from labs specifically testing the disease. (Hopefully, testing for means to eradicate it.)

        • by mysidia (191772)

          Wait, I was alive during that time -- the smallpox vaccine wasn't made from smallpox, it was made from cowpox

          I strongly suggest you read more. There were other [wikipedia.org] ways of innoculating against smallpox which were also commonly used, especially, before better methods were developed.

          • I strongly suggest you read more. There were other [wikipedia.org] ways of innoculating against smallpox

            Indeed. Direct inoculation with pus or scabs from smallpox pustules was used long before vaccines were discovered. These inoculations had about a 2% mortality rate, compared with ~30% for those contracting the airborne virus. Knowledge of inoculation spread from China, through the Muslim world, into Africa. African slaves taught the technique to Americans. From there it spread to Europe. Vaccinations (based on cowpox) came centuries later.

            • by swilly (24960)

              According to Wikipedia, this is not quite true. Chinese did discover the practice in the 10th century, and reports on the practice were given to the Royal Society in 1700, but no action was taken.

              The Ottomans learned it before the early 18th century, but we don't know for certain how or when it got there. They also reported on it to the Royal Society in 1714 and 1716, but nobody paid much attention until the wife of the British Ambassador to the Ottomans witnessed it and introduced it to Europe's ruling e

              • What did we do before Wikipedia?

                We read the original books many of those Wikipedia articles have been copied from.

                • by mysidia (191772)

                  We read the original books many of those Wikipedia articles have been copied from.

                  We still do, but they are not online: which makes them difficult to link to.

                  These days, if your content isn't coded in HTML, online, freely accessible, and linked by a reliable authoritative directory, such as WP: then you don't exist.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          Before the vaccine was invented, they had inoculation -- bits of smallpox scabs injected into a person. This means that a couple centuries ago, your average doctor would have had smallpox laying around to inoculate patients with. Any old medical something-or-other from the 1700s could contain smallpox.

          dom

          • I doubt the virus is still alive if the sample is from the 1700s. Modern viral storage techniques didn't come about until the 20th century and even then it was still a troublesome aspect in most industrialized countries, and a big part of biowarfare research (gotta keep the virus capable despite being loaded into bombs, rockets, and other dispensers). Seeing that the US and Soviets had a massive problem getting this to work for many kinds of viruses I seriously doubt that some guy in the 1700s who didn't ev
        • (Hopefully, testing for means to eradicate it.)

          Of course. "It" being our enemies.

        • by tlhIngan (30335)

          Wait, I was alive during that time -- the smallpox vaccine wasn't made from smallpox, it was made from cowpox. So samples of the vaccine would not be smallpox, dead or otherwise. Samples of smallpox would be from labs specifically testing the disease. (Hopefully, testing for means to eradicate it.)

          And only a decade or so ago, smallpox was effectively eradicated from the world - a win for vaccinations.

          Of course, then we had the whole anti-vaxxer thing and now, smallpox is back and as infectious as ever. And

          • by roc97007 (608802)

            Wait, I was alive during that time -- the smallpox vaccine wasn't made from smallpox, it was made from cowpox. So samples of the vaccine would not be smallpox, dead or otherwise. Samples of smallpox would be from labs specifically testing the disease. (Hopefully, testing for means to eradicate it.)

            And only a decade or so ago, smallpox was effectively eradicated from the world - a win for vaccinations.

            Of course, then we had the whole anti-vaxxer thing and now, smallpox is back and as infectious as ever. And you thought whooping cough was bad. All these controlled diseases are now rampaging communities again, except instead of in poorer nations in Africa and the like where the lack of medical care derives from corrupt governments and poverty, it's in first-world nations with access to clean water, medical aid, education, etc.

            Wait a minute. People haven't been regularly vaccinated for Smallpox since 1971. (Don't take my word for it, check the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.) Not because of "the anti-vaxxer thing" but because the disease was eradicated. *Four* decades ago. This is why you don't see people in civilized countries with smallpox vaccination scars who aren't old enough to be grandparents.

            According to the CDC, the last known case in the US was 1945 and the last naturally occurring case in the world

    • by jandersen (462034)

      And, who knows? Maybe a dozen other places

      Indeed. As it turns out, the greatest threat to mankind is not necessarily from power-crazed world-leaders sitting on huge arsenals, but from people who didn't care enough, didn't think far enough ahead and didn't understand what they were dealing with.

  • A virus will always find a way.

    Next thing we know, someone will find that the people responsible for tracking those vials mysteriously died from the same pox. "Gee, Professor...I wonder what's in these?"
    • by amiga3D (567632)

      This is why we need to go back to vaccinating for smallpox. It's only a matter of time before it gets out again and with an unprotected public it'll spread like wildfire.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        No it won't. We have enough vaccine in anti-terror storage to vaccinate the country and the disease is slow spreading. Sure it will suck to be in city 0 but we'll stop it.

        • No it won't. We have enough vaccine in anti-terror storage to vaccinate the country and the disease is slow spreading. Sure it will suck to be in city 0 but we'll stop it.

          but if we just preemptively vaccinate then city zero won't be an issue.

          • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @08:11PM (#47411893)

            Sure. Let's vaccinate against a disease that is eradicated in the wild. Never mind the possibility (likelihood, in a large enough population) of adverse side effects - eczema vaccinatum, progressive vaccinia, and postvaccinal encephalitis, for example. (14-52 people per million vaccinated, or .0014%-.0052%.)

            No vaccine is side effect free. In most cases, the risk of the side effects is justified by the fact that their likelihood is far, far lower than the likelihood of the disease in an unvaccinated population, and they tend to be far lower in severity than the disease. But for smallpox, given that it no longer occurs in the wild, the risk is unjustifiable.

            • by mysidia (191772) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @11:36PM (#47412839)

              But for smallpox, given that it no longer occurs in the wild, the risk is unjustifiable.

              There are some people, however... that should always be vaccinated against Smallpox:

              1. Anyone working at the secure facility where these samples are stored; especially any lab workers, security guards, and cleaning staff.
              2. Anyone working at a facility where the samples are used to study Smallpox are being handled.
              3. Healthcare professionals, doctors/nurses/... that see patients and are occasionally exposed to people with various skin diseases or work in foreign countries where smallpox used to be prevalent.
              4. Everyone that any of the people above are in daily contact with.

              • by konaya (2617279)
                Wouldn't that make it that much harder to track down the source in the event of an outbreak? If, say, a janitor or janitrix at Acme Carwash and Research Centre is among the first people to succumb to the disease, that would be a fairly obvious clue. If he or she is inoculated, however, and merely acts as a spore carrier and infects a random stranger on the bus, the source will be that much harder to track.
                • by mysidia (191772)

                  merely acts as a spore carrier and infects a random stranger on the bus, the source will be that much harder to track.

                  It is extremely unlikely for any part of the samples to leave the lab --- they have required decontamination and washing procedures involving strong disinfectants.

                  The real danger is not that the potentially small number of spores that might exist in the lab and hitch a ride, but that someone will become infected during an accident and start producing spores.

                  What's at risk will proba

              • by Reziac (43301) *

                I wonder if any of the milder diseases we see are actually attenuated or mutated smallpox, still in the wild.

                Well, I've got my smallpox vax scar... nowadays that's how you ID an old fogie!

            • by operagost (62405)
              You crazy anti-vaxxer! Who let Jenny McCarthy in here?
          • You might want to look up the "Swine Flu Scare of 1976". A few cases of swine flu infected some recruits on a military base in New Jersey. Public health officials fearing an outbreak began a mass vaccination campaign costing over a hundred million dollars, up to 500 cases of Guillain–Barré syndrome, and at least 25 deaths. All to stop a flu that never exceeded 5 infections contained to Fort Dix, and only 1 death directly attributable to the flu. Vaccines can be a great thing, they have came a

            • [vaccination caused] 25 deaths. All to stop a flu that never exceeded 5 infections contained to Fort Dix

              Yes, but you can't go back in time and discover what would have happened if they didn't mass vaccinate. Sure dumb luck may have caught all five cases before it spread further, but do you want to bet your life on dumb luck?

              • by Rich0 (548339) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @02:00AM (#47413315) Homepage

                [vaccination caused] 25 deaths. All to stop a flu that never exceeded 5 infections contained to Fort Dix

                Yes, but you can't go back in time and discover what would have happened if they didn't mass vaccinate. Sure dumb luck may have caught all five cases before it spread further, but do you want to bet your life on dumb luck?

                Yup, this sounds a bit like Y2K in retrospective. Was money wasted on it because it turned out to be a non-event, or was it a non-event because so much was spent on it?

                Always money to do it over, never money to do it right... :)

                • by konaya (2617279)

                  Yup, this sounds a bit like Y2K in retrospective. Was money wasted on it because it turned out to be a non-event, or was it a non-event because so much was spent on it?

                  Money was wasted on it because many parties insisted on waiting until the very last minute to do anything about it.

              • The fact of the mater is though that it never did spread past the base, you can argue what "might have" happened till you're blue in the face but that still doesn't change the fact that even if no one had been vaccinated the other measures taken (quarantine, assessment of proximate personnel, public advisories, etc) at least in this case prevented the spread of the disease. If this had been an auto manufacturer and some safety mechanism that never saved a life but had resulted in 25 deaths, hundreds of deb

            • by oodaloop (1229816)
              But you don't have dandruff!

              Exactly!
            • by ultranova (717540)

              All to stop a flu that never exceeded 5 infections contained to Fort Dix, and only 1 death directly attributable to the flu.

              A flu with a 20% mortality rate amongst young men in top shape? Yeah, no reason to panic...

          • by mysidia (191772) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @11:29PM (#47412797)

            but if we just preemptively vaccinate then city zero won't be an issue.

            The Vaccine for Smallpox is not entirely safe, because the vaccine consists of essentially another virus called Vaccinia.

            This is an infectious virus; the Smallpox Vaccine infects the person who has been vaccinated.

            Unlike many other Vaccines -- however, there are significant rates of adverse reaction. Further improvements to the vaccine require human testing, and since the disease has been deemed eradicated --- no improvements can really be made:

            Average 1 in 1 to 2 million people vaccinated result in deaths, many more people experience severe complications but don't die. If there are 300 million people vaccinated; then you could estimate that 300 people would die of complications. It is quite unlikely for you to be one of the 300.......... it's also unlikely for the Smallpox vaccine to help you against Smallpox in the future. Still..... the complications can be pretty nasty, even if you do survive. Most people should probably deem the extra protection not worth the more immediate very real dangers:

            Post-Vaccinial Encephalitis: 1 in ~3 million people vaccinated. 25% of these: permanent neurological damage; 15-25% die.

            Vaccinia necrosum: Progressive tissue death ("necrosis") at the original injection site. 1 persion per 1 to 2 million vaccinations; almost always fatal before availability of vaccinia imunoglobins; people with T-Cell deficiencies are particularly at high risk.

            Vaccinia Keratitis: accidental transfer of vaccinia virus leading to lesions of the eye. Reaction: threatens eyesight, corneal scarring....

            Eczema Vaccinatum. Too horrible to think of; people who already have some form of eczema, atopic dermatitis, or sensitive skin are at high risk and fatalaties have resulted in the past. Virus produces extensive lesions throughout the skin. Patient's life may be saved with early hospitalization and urgent treatment.

            1 in 242 million vaccinated will contract a generalized vaccinia infection -- involving pustules forming about the skin distant from the site of injection and generalized rashes throughout the body; for some patients with weakened immune systems, this results in a toxic and potentially fatal course.

            1 in 1 million people to be vaccinated on average, develop a systemic reaction to the vaccine which has a likelihood of fatal outcomes; people who have been immunocompromised or have a weak immune system are particularly susceptible.

            Even more people have a severe adverse reaction which may be crippling or severe enough to give one pause about if one really needs the vaccine. Is it an appropriate risk tradeoff? What is the true risk of contracting smallpox VS the cost of taking the vaccine?

            Successful vaccination always produces a lesion at the vaccination site, within 4 days, and it will leave a permanent mark which may be undesirable; this will be highly itchy, and highly infectious --- easily carried by clothing, and easily transferred to hands or other body parts to come in contact with it. Contact or contact with anything that touched the lesion may result in infection/lesions of vaccinia on other part of the body, and also: contact with other people ("inadvertent vaccination of friends or family, for example").

            Weeks of malaise and discomfort after the vaccination are essentially guaranteed; the vaccine will essentially almost definitely make you feel sick, and likely for 3 to 7 days, similar to a cold.

            17% to 20% of vaccinees experience a fever exceeding 100 degrees, during the first 2 weeks after vaccination, and plenty of vaccinated experience a fever exceeding 102F for the first 5 days.

            Most people vaccinated experience significant irritation at the vaccination site: including significant soreness, and a variety of kinds of skin rashes plus myalgia lasting 5 to 7 days. More rarely: Stevens-Johnson syndrome results, in which necrosis ("tissue death") of the skin results, in a life-threatening condition involving the dermis of the skin separating from the epidermis.

            • This is all funny to me. I have been vaccinated 4 times for smallpox. Once as a child (thank you modern medicine!) and three times in the past decade (thank god for wiped databases :( ).

              Every single time it has left a permanent scar as your post says. Every single time in the past decade, it has made me feel like crap for at least a week, sometimes two weeks. Every single time, dealing with a live virus on the skin has been a HUGE pain in the ass. Thankfully, I have never had any actual severe adverse react

        • by ganjadude (952775)
          wait, so we have enough to vaccinate the USA... while the rest of the world dies off??

          well ok then
    • A virus will always find a way.

      What is this, Variolic Park or what?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Nice to know they actually keep track of these things. What's next? "Nuke found in sandbox"

    • Nice to know they actually keep track of these things. What's next? "Nuke found in sandbox"

      Oh, were you planning on visiting the scenic Hanford Nuclear Reservation?

    • by mysidia (191772)

      Nice to know they actually keep track of these things. What's next? "Nuke found in sandbox"

      Consider this: 50 years ago, they were just samples of a common infection --- no extraordinary accounting or security measures were required, and it's certainly possible that a number of samples slipped through the cracks and have been "lost" and are just out there somewhere.

      Who would have known that Smallpox would eventually be mostly eradicated, and security would ever be a concern?

      You can't bolt on securi

      • by the gnat (153162)

        they were just samples of a common infection

        A common infection that killed more people in the 20th century than all wars put together. It's shocking to think that someone would carelessly misplace a vial of an airborne infectious agent with a mortality rate above 20%, even in the mid-20th century. Smallpox is hands-down the deadliest disease in human history - the only reason it could be eradicated was the lack of non-human reservoirs. I'm not particularly afraid of nuclear war, but the thought of smallp

        • Re:"Security" (Score:4, Interesting)

          by mysidia (191772) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @12:53AM (#47413119)

          It's shocking to think that someone would carelessly misplace a vial of an airborne infectious agent with a mortality rate above 20%

          We don't know for a fact that this particular copy of Smalllpox was one of the highly fatal versions. I'm sure this was not careless, as it was appropriately stored. They apparently just lost track of the fact that it was there and where it was, in terms of recordkeeping and careful management of the research specimens.

          Seeing as the vial was quite carefully freeze-dried, sealed, and placed into the cold storage, in a lab where dangerous specimens would ordinarily be stored, requiring the appropriate training of staff for safe handling of such samples: it was really no danger.

          Cold storage in vials boxed up is not unusually risky treatment for an infectious agent. I am sure if you looked at more dusty boxes in the cold storage at the various laboratories and regulators, you would find numerous examples of very serious highly-infectious agents, including plenty of examples of Ebola, Marburg, Nipah, SARS, West Nile, Poliomyelitis/Polio, Hepatitis, Pappataci (Yellow Fever), Measles, Spanish flu, HIV, Tuberculoisis, .

          A common infection that killed more people in the 20th century than all wars put together.

          Smallpox didn't start in the 20th century; its prominence in the 20th century was a culmination of over 500 years of infecting humans.. in the early 20th century, there were many diseases, and it's not so clear to what degree Smallpox actually cut lives significantly shorter than they otherwise would have been. Smallpox caused a lot of deaths, and there were highly virulent strains that developed, but most strains were not so highly deadly and not necessarily airborne either; Variola Minor vs Variola Major, etc, etc.... It didn't kill all the humans(TM) like the black death almost did, else, we wouldn't be around to talk about it, as Smallpox was very tenacious and nasty.... but not necessarily the absolute worst virological threat that we have known as a species.

    • by geniice (1336589)

      Nukes are unlikely. However I'd bet there are a few physics labs with poorly documented collections of radioactives.

    • Swamp, not sandbox. [wikipedia.org]

  • by silvermorph (943906) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @07:39PM (#47411691)
    We love fantasy novels where someone discovers a box that holds ancient power and destruction, and then the hero has to save the day.
    Well, it just happened.
  • by russotto (537200) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @07:42PM (#47411727) Journal
    When I said send it to Maryland, I meant Fort Detrick, not NIH.
  • medical experts of WHO in 2011 had requested the U.S. CDC and Russian VECTOR destroy their stores of smallpox, that no good purpose is served by keeping them. but still the stuff remains.

    • Why not destroy it? You and I along with the rest of us damn well know the virus has been sequenced and stored on file someplace. Not sure how trivial is it for a superpower's military complex, but pull the file and synthesize the virus again as a bioweapon with extra bonus features coded in. So again, why keep it physically around? Are we trying to usher in one of the four horseman or what?!

      • Yes, Pollution. But that is another story. As anybody knows, Pestilence retired mumbling something about Penicillin.
      • by Reziac (43301) *

        The trouble is, we may in the future discover that the sequenced DNA does not suffice. Or that there's an error. If we don't have reference material, we can't fix any such errors, or even discover them in the first place.

        This is kinda like deciding a project is no longer needed, so instead of archiving it, you compile one last binary, then destroy all the source code.

    • by ganjadude (952775)
      actually finding this makes a good point that they were actually correct and should not destroy them. lets just say that this virus got out and we destroyed our remaining stocks, would that not make it harder to make a modern vaccine?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @08:27PM (#47411983)

    I'm glad smallpox has finally come out of the closet.

  • by Arkh89 (2870391) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @08:35PM (#47412039)

    Don't worry, the box has already filled a complaint to Google in order to remove all search results related to this story...
    And it will gone for good...

  • Misleading headline: FDA != NIH.
    • by Albanach (527650)

      Misleading headline: FDA != NIH.

      Guessing you never read the article. Had you done so, you would have seen this bit:

      "[E]mployees discovered vials labeled ”variola,” commonly known as smallpox, in an unused portion of a storage room in a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratory located on the NIH Bethesda campus."

  • by Z00L00K (682162) on Tuesday July 08, 2014 @11:26PM (#47412785) Homepage

    I think this is the biggest risk when it comes to a possible new outbreak. Some uneducated people clean out a lab of storage facility and just throws everything in a dumpster without knowing what they are working with.

    It has happened before with other stuff (medical records, computers etc.) and it will happen again. The question is if there is something somewhere that is a major danger. Even worse is if there are some vials with biological warfare material that makes Ebola seem like a common cold. Since much of that research is done secretly it's not easy to know - and in some cases everyone that knows may have passed away and the remains of those projects are just stored in a warehouse with a reference to some documents that have been shredded a decade or more ago.

  • nomal 30 years ago (Score:4, Informative)

    by thygate (1590197) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @02:01AM (#47413319)
    I just saw a report on the discovery of the Ebola Virus back in the late seventies. Back then the samples of a new unknown deadly disease from missionaries in Congo were put in card board boxes that were carried through Antwerp city (Belgium) on foot, taking them to the university for analysis under an electron microscope. The virus was isolated in a normal room back then and stored in a thermos. source: Prof. EM. Guido Van Der Groen (Virologist)
    • by Anonymous Coward
      I know this is slashdot, but how come every story here has to somehow involve python or its inventor?
  • Fuck me, I worked in that office for most of last year.
    • by konaya (2617279)

      Fuck me, I worked in that office for most of last year.

      I'd really rather not, lest I catch something off you.

  • I don't think this is the only sample that is in the wild...
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

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