Lions, Tigers, & Bears or Anthrax, Smallpox, & Bird Flu

Today it was announced that the recently discovered smallpox vials contained viable virus that was infectious. This is not too unexpected given that these were freeze-dried specimens.

However, the other piece of news that accompanied this announcement was that, over the last decade, there were 5 lapses in which dangerous pathogens, including the H5N1 influenza virus, were sent improperly to other laboratories from the CDC. The revelation of these incidents has prompted CDC to cease operations at two labs and impose a "moratorium" on specimen shipping from some CDC labs. 

What strikes me as the most important part of the story, however, is the issue of the Select Agent Rules. After the anthrax attacks of 2001 there was a major effort by the US government to impose strict control on the laboratories doing work on certain pathogens that were particularly dangers (hence, select agents).

Many university laboratories, including the ones in my own institution, struggled to meet these requirements. I personally know of one tularemia researcher who had particular difficulty meeting all the regulatory requirements to receive a non-virulent strain of the bacterium.

This laxity by some government personnel gives the impression that although university labs work diligently to comply with such regulations, their government counterparts have not exerted the same level of diligence. The belief that a two-tiered system exists coupled with the lapses that have occurred is something that could harm the public's confidence in this vital research and potentially jeopardize it -- a scenario that is more dangerous than finding decades-old smallpox vials.



Who Left Their Smallpox in the Closet?

The revelation that 6 vials of smallpox--the only human disease mankind has eradicated--were found in an FDA storage room at the NIH will likely grab headlines and spark concerns of a smallpox outbreak. However, I do not anticipate this event will amount to much. 

As is widely known, smallpox was eradicated from the planet in the 1970s and vaccination soon stopped. This cessation of vaccination has rendered most of the population susceptible to smallpox...if it were to return through an accidental lab release or deliberate attack--a major concern for those in the fields of biosecurity and bioterrorism.

In the post-eradication era, the known stocks of the virus are kept in secure locations at the CDC in Atlanta and the Vector Institute in Novosibirsk (Russia). The retention of the virus has sparked continual debate at the World Health Assembly regarding whether these stocks should be destroyed or retained. 

Further testing remains to be performed to determine whether what was found at the NIH was viable virus and the fact that it was freeze-dried may have preserved infectivity. Indeed, the vials have tested positive for smallpox DNA and the next step will be to assess whether the virus can be cultivated in culture. Nevertheless, though these vials do not pose any risk to the general public, the fact that forgotten stores of the deadly virus exist in the US makes it all the more possible that such remnants exist in other parts of the world. 


Your Shoes Remind Me of Smallpox

A few days ago I noticed my stylish neighbor and friend's new shoes and was immediately reminded of smallpox. That might seem an odd connection but look at them.

Smallpox is a disease that has cut a huge swath into human history. The successful effort to eradicate smallpox began with the inception of vaccination by Edward Jenner and stretched to the fatal blow to the disease struck by DA Henderson centuries later. 

Not only has smallpox been a natural scourge on human populations, but it has also been attempted to be used nefariously multiple times. For example, it was employed by the British army in the French and Indian War. Other times when smallpox may have been used as a weapon of war include by the British army against Washington's army and the Confederate army against the Union army. In fact, General Washington had the Revolutionary Army variolated--a precursor to vaccination--in the event of British use of the virus (see this hand written letter by Washington on the issue).

Iraq and the former Soviet Union had also weaponized the virus.

Current debate regarding smallpox is centered on whether the last remaining known stocks of the virus, kept at the CDC and by the Russian government, should be destroyed. This year's World Health Assembly in Geneva will decide the question. 

Smallpox shoes may be in vogue, but I prefer Vans.