Prescient Nature article on forgotten smallpox samples


Yesterday, the CDC announced the discovery of several vials of smallpox virus, forgotten in a storage room since the 1950s. Back in April, Nature's Sara Reardon wrote about the risks (and benefits) of just this sort of thing.

Her story primarily focuses on sources of extant smallpox other than forgotten lab samples — virus that could, theoretically, survive in permafrost mummies, for instance, or the carefully saved smallpox scabs that people stumble across from time to time. But it includes this great paragraph that would turn out to be very prescient.

This month, the World Health Assembly — the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO) — will meet in Geneva, Switzerland, and decide when to destroy the only known stocks of smallpox virus, held in deep freezes at highly protected laboratories in the United States and Russia. It is a move that has been delayed since the 1980s, and in all likelihood will be put off yet again. But even if the official stocks of virus are destroyed, the chance remains that other batches of the virus could be hidden in a freezer somewhere — or that the pathogen could re-emerge, zombie-like, from a mummified corpse such as the dead woman found in Queens.

Images: Some rights reserved by PAHO/WHO