Is Smallpox Poised to Make a Comeback?

April 21, 2017

Although the eradication of smallpox was declared by the World Health Assembly in 1980, the deadly disease might make a comeback. The question is, will we be prepared for it?

A serious, and often deadly, infectious disease may be rearing its ugly head years after the World Health Assembly deemed it completely eradicated due to successful vaccination efforts. The disease in question? Smallpox.

Although its origin remains unknown, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smallpox is thought to date to the 3rd century BCE in the Egyptian Empire. Throughout history, as civilizations continued to grow and expand their reach, the disease managed to spread across the globe, leaving devastation in its wake. Although the last natural outbreak of smallpox occurred back in 1949, it seems that as the frozen Siberian tundra continues to melt, the chances of the virus making a comeback are not so far-fetched, at least according to major new source, the Independent.

According to the news source, experts are warning that as the tundra melts, corpses of those who died during an epidemic that occurred over 120 years ago may resurface, and if that happens, the disease might as well.

“Back in the 1890s, there occurred a major epidemic of smallpox. There was a town where up to 40% of the population died,” Boris Kershengolts, of the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences said in the press release. “Naturally, the bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost soil, on the bank of the Kolyma River. Now, a little more than 100 years later, Kolyma’s floodwaters have started eroding the banks.” With the permafrost melting, the erosion process may be accelerated.

In the Yamal peninsula near Salekhard, where anthrax spores were reportedly found, experts from the Virology and Biotechnology Centere have channeled their efforts into seeing if other diseases were present as well. Their findings? Corpses covered with sores “that look like the marks left by smallpox.” Although they “did not find the virus itself, they did detect fragments of its DNA.”

This is not just one lone occurrence; however, another news outlet, The Daily Mail, reported on how the Kakrapar Nuclear Power Plant located in Gujarat, a state in Western India, has been temporarily shut down after discovering that leaky pipes inside the complex were not only corroded, but the “rare alloy” the pipes are made out of may have actually “contracted a smallpox-like virus.”

After investigating the leak, four large cracks on the coolant tube had been discovered and were thought to be the cause of the incident. Exposure to high temperatures and a heavy load of water are thought to be the reason for the corrosion. Now, investigators “believe that carbon dioxide used in Kakrapar may have been contaminated, which would have caused the smallpox-like corrosion,” according to the article.

Potential naturally-occurring cases are not the only aspect to fear when it comes to a potential comeback of the disease. At a recent security conference in Munich, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, warned attendees of the growing threat of bioterrorism, stressing that if deadly diseases such as smallpox were to be intentionally spread, the impact “could be worse than that of a nuclear attack,” according to the news outlet RT News.

“We ignore the link between health security and international security at our peril,” Gates said. “The next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of terrorists intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus…or a super contagious and deadly strain of the flu.”

There has been growing concerns over the looming possibility of bioterrorism attacks, especially since advancements made in molecular biology have made biological weapons more accessible, according to the press release. This is all the more reason to focus energy into being prepared for a potential outbreak, Gates pointed out. He reminded the audience, “Getting ready for a global pandemic is every bit as important as nuclear deterrence and avoiding a climate catastrophe.”

Although vaccination was enough to eradicate the deadly disease in the past, it might not be enough if smallpox makes a surprise comeback. By being aware of potential occurrences and developing prevention strategies, should an outbreak spring up, the world as a whole could be better prepared this time around. To this end, companies such as SIGA Technologies, Inc are focusing their efforts on the development of solutions for potential biothreats. One such drug SIGA is developing is TPOXX (tecovirimat), an antiviral drug for the treatment of orthopoxvirus infections, such as smallpox. The company recently completed enrollment and dosing in the final cohort of a phase 1 trial of an intravenous formulation for the drug.

Feature Picture Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention