In 1977, smallpox was eradicated as the result of a massive global effort. Rather than completely eliminate the virus, it was decided that the United States and Russia would each keep a sample. Part of the reasoning for this is that pox viruses are common in the animal world, and could potentially jump between species. Having samples of human smallpox could be useful, in the event that such a thing occurred.
Unfortunately – and rather threateningly – the Russian smallpox sample didn’t sit idly in a freezer. Smallpox is a highly contagious, highly lethal disease and yet Biopreparat, the Soviet Union’s biological weapons agency, made some twenty tonnes of the stuff, tested it on animals, and developed mechanisms to use it as a weapon, including delivery via warheads on intercontinental missiles. This was done at the State Research Institute of Virology and Biotechnology (also called Vector), outside the city of Novosibirsk, in Siberia, as well as at a more secret facility in Sergiyev Posad. It was also tested on Vozrozhdeniya Island. The Soviets made so much that it couldn’t all be accounted for. Quite possibly, some found its way into biological weapons programs in other states, such as China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, and Serbia.
Whereas human beings once had two major forms of protection from smallpox – immunity resulting from exposure to the virus, and vaccination campaigns – the former is now absent and the latter defunct and potentially difficult to restore. A single case, perhaps arising from some accident, could directly infect hundreds of people and kick off an escalating series of waves of infection, spaced fourteen days apart, as people go through the incubation period and become infectious. Such a global outbreak could kill a massive number of people.
The idea of an accidental release is not fanciful. In 1978, medical photographer Janet Parker became one of the two last people to contract smallpox, working in the anatomy department of the University of Birmingham Medical School. It seems entirely plausible that accidental exposure could occur at some shady biological weapon lab in Cuba, Pakstan, or North Korea.
If anything like that ever happens, people may end up looking on the decision not to stick to just one frozen sample of smallpox as the worst thing the Soviet Union ever did. Hopefully, all the concern and money expended on security since 2001 has at least left the world in a better position to launch a mass vaccination campaign, should the need ever arise.