On 9 December 1979, a commission of eminent scientists declared that smallpox was eradicated. Five months later on 8 May 1980, the World Health Organisation endorsed the declaration themselves saying the terrible virus was now eradicated and no longer a threat to the worldwide human population. But eradicated and extinct are two very different things. That’s because the smallpox virus is still alive.
Towards the end of the worldwide fight to destroy the killer virus there were a few final outbreaks of the disease. The last outbreak of smallpox in Europe was in 1972 in Yugoslavia where 175 people were infected and 35 lost their life. By 1977 the final refuge of smallpox was in the horn of Africa. The last naturally occurring infection of Variola minor, which is the least deadly variant of the disease was on 26 October 1977. The final naturally occurring infection of the more deadly Variola major was in October 1975 in Bangladesh. But they were the last naturally occurring infections of the virus, yet more were to follow.
Although the world had eradicated naturally occurring infections of smallpox, scientists kept the smallpox virus alive in laboratories. This led to an outbreak of two cases in Birmingham, UK in 1978. One person lost their life.
So why is the smallpox virus still alive and where is it?
Many may be wondering where the virus is lurking. We can tell you that it’s not some poor, backwater, third world country. It’s probably much closer to home than you would be comfortable with. Following the outbreak in Birmingham all stocks of smallpox were transferred to one of two WHO reference laboratories. One is State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR in Koltsovo, Russia, the other is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States.
On several occasions the WHO has attempted to destroy all known stocks of the smallpox virus. At each attempt they have been thwarted. Some scientists believe that by keeping the smallpox virus alive it will allow them to develop new vaccines, antiviral drugs, and diagnostic tests. The WHO dispute this and have concluded that no essential public health purpose is served by keeping stocks alive in Russia and the USA.