The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has analyzed several vials labeled “smallpox” that caused a lab in Pennsylvania to be locked down, after their discovery last week. To everyone’s relief, and also to their perplexity, the vials were found to contain no trace of smallpox at all.
During the time between discovering vials labeled “smallpox” and discovering it was a false alarm (some kind of prank? A jar that they forgot to fill up with the world’s most deadly virus??), people were alarmed, the lab was locked down, and the FBI began investigating. As extreme as this might sound, given the virus’s history — right up to the last person killed by the disease — it is far better to be safe than sorry.
Smallpox, to put it lightly, was extremely deadly, with about 30 percent of people infected with the variola virus succumbing to the disease. Thanks to a successful global vaccination program, the World Health Organization (WHO) was able to declare it eradicated in 1979.
The last person to die of smallpox, which killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone, occurred one year earlier in the summer of 1978.
Janet Parker, a medical photographer, was working at Birmingham Medical School, England, where she used a telephone and shortly afterward began to feel ill. At first, she was diagnosed with flu, then when pocks appeared on her skin she was diagnosed with chickenpox. Nearly a month after she was infected, on August 20, she was taken to hospital with suspected smallpox.
Below where Parker had used the telephone was a lab containing samples of the virus under the control of Professor Henry Bedson. Bedson was a smallpox researcher, who was then concentrating on whether variants of the disease would be a problem following eradication. WHO inspectors had visited the lab in May of that year, and had been unhappy with what they saw. However, they let him continue with his work, providing that certain improvements were made and given that the lab was due for closure in six months’ time anyway.
This was incredibly unfortunate for Parker, who used the telephone above the lab some five months later. A particularly virulent strain, known as Abid after the 3-year-old boy it was isolated in, had escaped through an air duct and made its way up to where she was using the phone. Whilst she and her close family were quarantined, the world’s media descended on Birmingham to wait and see whether the deadly disease would emerge once more.
It did, and shortly after her admission to hospital, Parker died.
Professor Henry Bedson died by suicide before Parker’s death was confirmed, horrified that he may have released the disease he’d been working hard to eradicate into the world once more.
“I am sorry to have misplaced the trust which so many of my friends and colleagues have placed in me and my work,” he wrote in a note, believing that the virus had escaped from his laboratory, which government reports would later confirm.
Only one other person, Parker’s mother, was infected, mildly, and she was soon free of the infection. A year after the incident, smallpox was declared eradicated entirely.
Finally free from the disease, the decision was made to destroy all remaining stocks of smallpox, or move them to one of two secure laboratories — one in the US and one in Russia — where the last samples of the disease remain to this day.
Other than, of course, several samples that were discovered in a South African lab in 2014, sealed inside a flimsy cardboard box.