Headline-making news today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Workers clearing out an old storage room on the Bethesda, Md. campus of the National Institutes of Health have found a forgotten box of vials that contain smallpox.
Yes, smallpox. The “most terrible of all the ministers of death,” as Thomas Babington Macaulay called it in his 1848 History of England — a disease that was the world’s most dreadful killer, until it was declared eradicated in 1980. A disease caused by a virus that now is supposed to reside in only two highly secure laboratories on the planet, in Russia, and at the CDC.
Smallpox is the only human disease ever successfully eradicated — pursued to elimination by a relentless dragnet that closed nooses of vaccination around every identified case. After the last natural infection, in Somalia in 1977, the World Health Organization launched a second dragnet, scouring lab freezers and storage rooms for any remaining samples of the virus, and consolidating them in Siberia and Atlanta.
Somehow, these six tubes of freeze-dried virus evaded the search. They were found in the storage room of a lab that now belongs to the Food and Drug Administration but was ceded to that agency by NIH in 1972. They may date back to the 1950s.