Forgotten Smallpox

In research institutes there is a continuous flow of people coming and going – some stay for only a few weeks, others for several years. Some disappear overnight leaving an office desk and lab bench in a state of disordered chaos as if they would come back some day soon. Who hasn’t experienced moving into their new office to find a pile of books and old pens left there by the previous inhabitant? To those who have, it will not come as a big surprise to hear that scientists clearing out storage areas at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Betheseda, Maryland found some vials supposedly originating from the 1950’s. But unlike the long forgotten unidentified plant DNA samples that haunted the back of the freezer in my old lab, these contained smallpox.

Smallpox is a contagious, infectious and sometimes fatal disease that was declared eradicated in 1980 following an effective worldwide vaccination program. Since then only those deemed at risk from bioterrorist attacks and the like have received vaccinations. There are only two authorised stocks in the world – one is kept in Russia and one at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US. Every so often the debate resurfaces about whether to destroy these last two stocks, but the decision has been postponed several times (most recently in May this year) and so for the moment they remain, kept for research purposes – not only to understand how the virus works, but also in order to design better effective vaccinations should smallpox ever be released into the world. Although these recently discovered six tubes were quickly removed and tested for viability at the CDC, where they will probably now be destroyed, the question remains, how many other stocks are lieing forgotten in labs around the world? In fact this is not the first time smallpox samples have resurfaced, and so it would seem now even more likely that the authorities will urge on the side of caution and not destroy the remaining stocks. For the rest of us, let this be a reminder about the need to clear out the lab freezer regularly, and check what’s hiding in the back of the storage area.

For a comprehensive summary of the situation, read Maryn Mckenna’s WIRED blog post.

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