Who Remembers Smallpox?

Jul 13, 2014

By Annie Sneed

A government employee made an unsettling find on July 1 while cleaning out a laboratory refrigerator: it contained six vials ofsmallpox virus stashed in a cardboard box, likely forgotten since the 1950s, as Nature News reports. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group). The discovery concerned health officials because only two laboratories (in the U.S. and Russia) are authorized by the World Health Organization to keep smallpox virus stocks, which they are to use only for research.

The recovered vials have aroused speculation and fears about the potential for other forgotten smallpox samples elsewhere in the world, hidden in laboratory freezers or possibly even preserved in humancorpses or tissue. The mere thought of a renewed smallpox outbreak makes anyone shudder, yet most people today live untouched by the ghastly infectious disease, one of the deadliest in history. A global immunization campaign officially eradicated the virus in 1980, although the last case in the U.S. occurred much earlier, in 1947. The last documented human infection occurred in England in 1978.

9 comments on “Who Remembers Smallpox?

  • 1
    Cairsley says:

    At least, the virus is not (as far as I know) active in any human population but is confined to laboratory refrigerators, kept for research purposes only. Given the nonsense we have been getting from antivaccinationists of late, perhaps much should be made of this reminder of the scourge that was smallpox and of how it was eradicated worldwide by vaccination. It is an incontestable example of how effective vaccination can be in protecting us from disease.

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  • I would like to know more about viruses. How did we get them? Do they exist in our body as a part of us, and why? Are there good and bad viruses, or they occur as good or bad under certain circumstances?

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  • Unsurprisingly, Wikipedia’s virus article will teach you much of what you wish to know (even if at times the honest answer is we’re not sure). For example, as to how viruses originated,

    The origins of viruses in the evolutionary history of life are
    unclear: some may have evolved from plasmids—pieces of DNA that can
    move between cells—while others may have evolved from bacteria.

    A subsection provides a more detailed discussion of possible viral origins.

    As for your other questions, viruses are not symbiotes; they are straightforwardly parasitic on cells’ ribosomes, which they use to copy themselves. However, viruses may be beneficial to one organism by harming its parasites. For example, bacteriophages (viruses which infect bacteria) can indirectly benefit us, to the point they are deliberately used to tackle certain harmful strains of bacteria.

    Finally, one interesting point is that, in the long term, viruses can enable certain forms of evolution that would not otherwise occur. For example, some viruses insert their genome into that of a cell so that some of its descendant cells will eventually produce more viruses. If these modifications to the genome get into somatic cells, they can be inherited. As these genes gradually mutate, their long-term effects on the host species are mixed, and can include some novel and beneficial evolution.

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  • An echo from medical/political/looney history, is that vaccination and variolation against smallpox were reviled in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Civil rights advocates, christian preachers, those with vested interests, or just plain nutters did everything in their powers to frustrate the attempts of governments to enforce protection against this deadly peste. The last laugh went to the autocrats: la variole was eradicated. Plus ça change…..

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  • @ Cairsley, it should be pointed out that some of these refrigerators are owned by the American and Russian military. Unless all the remaining stocks are certified as detroyed, the use of small pox as a weapon against a now largely unprotected population cannot be ruled out.

    Small pox of course was unique in not having an animal reservoir, as does influenza, and rabies, and on and on. It is a purely human disease, and as such was capable of complete eradication, unlike many others.

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  • Modesti. Your DNA contains many remnant viruses that are no longer active, going back millions of years. They were thought to be part of the “Junk DNA” but research is now finding that we would not exist, except for the fact that millions, possibly billions of years ago, our ancestors were infected with a virus or viruses. This link is to an awesome read. It illustrates how our evolution has been affected by retro virus infections.

    Scientists have known for some time that viral DNA exists in human DNA, the result of retrovirus infections millions of years ago. Retroviruses reproduce by injecting their own DNA into the DNA of a host—if it occurs in sperm or egg cells, the virus DNA can end up in the DNA of the host. Until now, scientists have thought that remnant viral DNA was simply “junk” DNA—meaning it didn’t do anything at all. Now it appears clear that at least one type of such DNA—HERV-H—actually plays a very important role in pluripotency.

    The full article can be read here.


    I’m trying to locate another bit of research like the above, that shows that the mother / placenta / foetus barrier, that allows nutrients and wastes to cross over, but not the mother’s immune system, can only occur as a result of a remnant scrap of virus code, that produces a “Chemical” that facilitates this process. In other words, placental animals, you an me, wouldn’t exist except that some far distant ancestor got a viral infection. If I find it, I will post the link.

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  • 8
    Cairsley says:

    Hello, JC Sheepdog. That smallpox infects only humans and not other animals is a very good point to mention for comparison. And, yes, in matters like vaccination, one can see the disadvantage at which democracy has to work.

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