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Vaccinia Virus Biological Agent Reference Sheet (BARS)

Disclaimer: Risk group, biosafety level, and all other precautions noted here are subject to change after a risk assessment by EHS.


Agent Type Risk Group Biosafety Level Animal Housing Biosafety Level
Virus RG-2 BSL-2 ABSL-2

Agent Characteristics 

Risk Group: RG-2 associated with human disease, rarely serious; preventive or therapeutic interventions often available.

Agent Type: Virus 

Description: The Vaccinia Virus (VACV) is a linear, double stranded DNA virus that is a member of the Poxviridae family. VACV normally has no serious
health effects in humans, although it can cause disease of the skin when used to inoculate against the smallpox virus. VACV is usually injected in the dermis where a localized lesion appears, and then scabs over and heals in about 10-14 days. Accidental infection with the virus can occur through contact between the vaccination lesion and broken skin. VACV has been used more extensively for human immunization than any other vaccine. For almost two centuries, VACV was employed to provide crossprotection against variola virus, the causative agent of smallpox, until the disease was eradicated in the late 1970s.

Host Range: Several mammals, including humans, rabbits, cows and river buffalo.

Host Shedding: Direct contact                   Incubation Period: 10-14 days

Route of Exposure to Humans: Direct contact, Mucous Membranes, Ingestion, Percutaneous, Broken skin

Infectious Dose: Unknown. Vaccine titer is usually 108 pock-forming units per mL.

Health Hazards

Signs and symptoms of infection may include:

  • Flu-like symptoms (i.e. fever, headache, dehydration, weight loss, lethargy)
  • Cutaneous symptoms (i.e. skin lesions, rash)
  • Lymphoreticular symptoms (i.e. enlarged internal organs or lymph nodes)

Immunizations: Available                         Prophylaxis*: None available

*Formal medical advice is obtained during medical consultations with Cornell Health or primary healthcare provider as needed.

Agent Viability 

Survival Outside Host Disinfection Inactivation

The dried virus can survive up to 39 weeks at 6.7% moisture and 4ºC.

Bleach 1:10 for 30 minutes 

Quarternary ammonium combined with chlorhexidine or glutaraldehyde. 

The virus is inactivated by dry heat at 95 ºC for 2 hours. The heat-sensitive fraction of the virus is inactivated by moist heat at 60 ºC while the heat resistant fraction may take higher temperatures to fully inactivate it. The virus in its aerosol form is also sensitive to UV light (254 nm).

For more guidance on disinfection see:  disinfectant selection.

Laboratory Hazards 

  • High energy-creating activities (centrifugation, sonication, high pressure systems, vortexing, tube cap popping)
  • Handling of sharps (needles, scalpels, microtome blades, broken glass, etc.)
  • Splash/droplet-creating activities (shaking incubators, liquid culturing, mechanical pipetting)
  • Equipment contamination
  • Exposed skin/uncovered wounds

Laboratory Acquired Infection (LAI) History: Unknown

Laboratory Handling Guidelines 

Laboratory Biosafety Level (BSL): BSL-2

Attenuated Strain Alternatives: Ankara (MVA) strain VACV Western Reserve NYVAC


Lab Engineering Controls Personal Protective Equipment
  • Eye protection
  • Single gloves
  • Additional gloves (recommended)
  • Snap-front lab coat with cinch cuffs (lab work)
  • Additional mucous membrane protection (mask/face shield)

Waste Management: Regulated Medical Waste (RMW)

Shipping Guidance: Refer to EHS Biological Materials Shipping 

Animal Vivarium Guidance

Animal Housing Biosafety Level (ABSL): ABSL-2

Animal Biosecurity: Experimental animals are housed separately

Perform InoculationsBiosafety Cabinet

Change CagesBiosafety Cabinet

Exposure and Spill Procedures 

Mucous Membranes: Flush eyes, mouth, or nose for 15 minutes at an eyewash station. See: responding to exposures.

Other Exposures: Wash with soap and water for 15 minutes (open wounds, sores, etc.) or a minimum of 20 seconds for areas with intact skin. See:  responding to exposures.

Small Spills: Notify others working in the lab. Evacuate area and allow 30 minutes for aerosols to settle. Don appropriate PPE. Cover area of the spill with paper towels and apply disinfectant, working from the perimeter toward the center. Allow 30 minutes of contact time before disposal and cleanup of spill materials. See:  spill cleanup

Large Spills: Request assistance from the EHS Spill Team by calling CUPD dispatch. Call 911 from a campus phone or 607-255-1111 from a mobile phone.

Incident Reporting: Immediately report the incident to supervisor and complete the EHS online injury/illness report as soon as possible.

Medical Follow-Up:

  • For students, seek medical attention at Cornell Health or local primary care provider. Call Cornell Health at 607-255-5155 (24-hour phone consultation line) or a local urgent care. 
  • For faculty and staff, seek medical evaluation with a local primary care provider or urgent care. Cornell Health does not see employees for post-exposure care. 
  • Emergencies: Call 911 from a campus phone or 607-255-1111 from a mobile phone. 
Cornell EHS would like to thank Emory University for the use of their Biological Agent Reference Sheet (BARS) format and some content. 

More Information


  1. Jacobs BL, Langland JO, Kibler KV, et al. Vaccinia virus vaccines: past, present and future. Antiviral Res. 2009;84(1):1–13.
  2. CDC. (2009). Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories. Retrieved from CDC.
  3. Public Health Agency of Canada. Vaccinia Virus. Pathogen Safety Data Sheets: Infectious Substances.
  4. MacNeil, A., Reynolds, M. G., & Damon, I. K. (2009). Risks associated with vaccinia virus in the laboratory. Virology, 385(1), 1–4.
  5. Mempel, M., Isa, G., Klugbauer, N., Meyer, H., Wildi, G., Ring, J., Hofmann, H. (2003). Laboratory Acquired Infection with Recombinant Vaccinia Virus Containing an Immunomodulating Construct. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 120(3), 356–358.
  6. Whitehouse, E. R., Rao, A. K., Yu, Y. C., Yu, P. A., Griffin, M., Gorman, S., … Petersen, B. W. (2019). Novel Treatment of a Vaccinia Virus Infection from an Occupational Needlestick — San Diego, California, 2019. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 68(42), 943–946.
  7. de Oliveira TM, Rehfeld IS, Coelho Guedes MI, Ferreira JM, Kroon EG, Lobato ZI. Susceptibility of Vaccinia virus to chemical disinfectants. Am J Trop Med Hyg. 2011;85(1):152-157. doi:10.4269/ajtmh.2011.11-0144