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.