An ACTUAL killer virus that could rise from the grave

Section through Variola virus.  Copyright Russell Kightley Media

Section through Variola virus. Copyright Russell Kightley Media

Having poo-pooed the possibility of killer viruses roaring out of the tundra to kill as all – see here – I find myself having to reconsider my words.  Just slightly, mind, but a reconsideration nonetheless.

This is because of an excellent post in Nature News recently, entitled “Infectious diseases: Smallpox watch“, by Sara Reardon.  This has raised quite a stir in the Twittersphere, as people speculate on just how likely this is, but I think the article itself does a very good job of discussing the possibility that smallpox could come back from the grave(s).

I have discussed smallpox a number of times in this blog, with one of the most read posts being this one by my PhD student (and now postdoc) Alta van Zyl.  I recall a while back a discussion around just how likely it was that people working on expanding what was the Rietfontein Infectious Diseases Hospital (now Sizwe Hospital)’s premises in Johannesburg, would find live smallpox in coffins of people who died of it at the old Hospital and were buried nearby.

The verdict then was “No” – Johannesburg is too hot, and the was seen to be NO chance of the virus surviving the rapid putrefaction that occurs in these parts.

Sara Reardon’s essay, however, raises the real, if rather remote, prospect of there being live smallpox in mummified corpses which have either dried out at low temperatures, or been frozen soon after death, in permafrost.  She says that

“A more likely source of infectious virus would be frozen bodies. Influenza viruses seem to be able to survive freezing in lakes and may thereby infect migrating birds…”

Now the good thing is that people have actually gone out looking for live virus in just such potential sources, and found nothing except fragments of DNA.

However, she also says:

“Another concern is that smallpox could escape from a secret cache. Few biosecurity specialists believe that the two stocks kept at the CDC and VECTOR are the only ones in existence. For instance, variola could very well be in the freezer of someone who defected from the Soviet Union…”

Now, the old Soviet Union had an active programme on weaponising smallpox, with some sources claiming than “several tonnes” of material were eventually made.  There is even evidence that smallpox escaped from a facility in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, in 1971.   What is not so clear is where any of this material is NOW, and in what state it is.

Time to work on the emergency-response smallpox vaccines and strategies, folks – even if you use the potential threat of monkeypox as the reason!



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10 Responses to “An ACTUAL killer virus that could rise from the grave”

  1. Linda Pifer Says:

    A monkeypox vaccine really wouldn’t be a bad idea because I’ve seen photos of kids who have it and it looks pretty nasty. I worry that some freak will subject the virus to “rapid passage” to boost it’s infectivity. Remember that generalized vaccinia can kill immunocompromised individuals. The pox viruses are just hellish things and it’s hard to imagine anything more atrocious than smallpox. Patients could not even lie down and rest because the entire dermatome was a mass of painful pustules.

  2. Linda Pifer Says:

    Now that’s the best idea! It frightened me when I learned that my children would not receive smallpox vaccination.

  3. rybicki Says:

    I remember the Soviet-era Russian vaccine we used to use in Zambia: blew your arm up like a balloon! But I am quite confident that I am immune to anything even REMOTELY resembling variola!

    • Linda Pifer Says:

      I certainly hope so! i was vaccinated vs. smallpox twice and worked hands on for several yrs. with fowlpox virus. What it does to chickens is very ugly, and rapid passage really intensifies the pathology. I wonder if there’s any cross-immunity between vaccinia and fowlpox? I suppose there might be (that would be nice!).

      • rybicki Says:

        Now my good wife could potentially tell you…B-) She is working on poxviruses right now, and has a collection of fowl/pigeonpoxes of VERY varying virulence, some of which do really nasty things to birds. And, incidentally, have very different CAM pathology in chicken eggs.

      • Linda Pifer Says:

        I’d love to know, so if you think about it, please ask her. We did most of our passages in chicks but I’ve worked with CAM quite a bit. We used a dental drill to cut a little window in the egg to inoculate and sealed it with hot paraffin. Had to drill slowly so as to not “cook” the membranes with heat.

  4. Linda Pifer Says:

    That’s an amazing paper. I didn’t dream fowlpox had such diversity. We had some Junco pox in the freezer but I don’t know if anybody ever did anything significant with it.

  5. So: will smallpox come back to kill us, from the melting permafrost?? | ViroBlogy Says:

    […] railed on about this sort of thing before, and I am as unconvinced now as I was then, albeit with SOME reservation about the possibility for […]

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