Smallpox – a contagious and often fatal disease responsible for the deaths of 300 million people in the 20th century alone – was declared completely eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1980 after a mass vaccination drive.
Although the disease is no longer naturally transmitted between people, experts believe that the virus still remains a global health security threat.
Although today, only two stores of the disease are known to exist – in research laboratories in Russia and the US – stocks of the virus unknown to experts could still be out there.
In 2014, six forgotten vials of the virus were found in a National Institute of Health storeroom in Maryland. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also stated that there is a “credible concern” that some countries have in the past weaponised the smallpox virus, with these bioweapons possibly falling into the hands of terrorists or criminals.
Professor David R. Harper, a senior fellow at Chatham House who was not involved in the research, said it is impossible for governments and security experts to be aware of all existing stocks of the virus – which could relatively easily be turned into a weapon. “It’s impossible to police that sort of thing,” he said.
Another concern for experts is that terrorists could rebuild a synthetic version of the virus using gene editing techniques. But given the complexity of this Prof. Harper believes this is a less likely scenario.
Fears that the virus could deliberately or unwittingly be released prompted the US government to fund the current research which began 15 years ago.
TPOXX works by containing the virus in an infected cell before it can spread to the rest of the body, giving the body’s immune system time to fight off the disease.
The US government aims to have a vaccine for every person in the country to prevent the spread of smallpox in the event of an outbreak and is currently stockpiling 2 million treatment courses of TPOXX.