The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (known as the CDC) is our federal public health agency located in Atlanta Georgia (as famously seen on the zombie apocalypse series The Walking Dead). Every year the CDC is given over 10 billion dollars to control the spread of disease and keep the public informed about our health. They’ve been especially prominent in the public eye since the COVID-19 pandemic started, being the main source of guidelines for Americans about how to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.
In informing the public, the CDC has frequently compared COVID-19 to previous pandemics and epidemics to help people put into context how deadly and communicable the disease is. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed around a third of Earth’s population (including Edward Cullen, RIP). Also in the 20th century, Smallpox outbreaks have killed 300–500 million people. This disease is so deadly, it killed up to 30% of people who contracted it. And a lot of people contracted Smallpox. COVID-19 spreads at a rate of 2-2.5 people for every person infected. By contrast, every person who contracted measles was expected to infect 12-18 others. Smallpox spread at a rate of about 60% when someone was in close contact with an infected person. When Columbus landed in North America, he introduced the Indigenous people who lived here to Smallpox, decimating the population. It is estimated that 90-95% of the native population was killed by diseases brought over by Europeans. Twenty million people. This is a big factor in how Europeans were able to colonize North America and created the prevailing mistaken belief that the U.S. was “virgin wilderness” before colonization.
The disease was finally eradicated in 1980, with the last known case occurring in 1977.
Since then, the CDC has kept samples of Smallpox to study, as is their practice with other communicable diseases. In 1994 the CDC said they had previously shared samples of some diseases with the Iraqi government, resulting in those samples being used to create biological weapons. In 2013 the CDC created a new lab with the highest set of safety precautions in the world, Biosafety level 4 (BSL-4). It is in these labs that Smallpox samples are supposed to be stored. They are supposed to be one of only two “official repositories” of Smallpox in the world.
Unfortunately, that shouldn’t make you feel too safe.
In 2014 scientists at a much less secure CDC facility in Bethesda, Maryland found vials of Smallpox in what sounds like a random closet. Not only were the samples not properly secured, this means that at some point the CDC lost samples of Smallpox and didn’t even realize it. Or realized it and didn’t tell anyone. An investigation found that safety protocols at the CDC were not being followed and . Dr. Tom Friedan, the CDC director at the time of the discovery, admitted his organization had “an inadequate culture of safety”.
Many people believe that known samples of Smallpox should be destroyed, citing this incident and the reliability of human error as being too dangerous to be worth the risk of retaining samples for study. Additionally, there is the risk of sample theft for the purpose of creating biological weapons. The last known Smallpox death occurred because a medical photographer was exposed to a sample at the University of Birmingham Medical School in the United Kingdom. We know it is dangerous to keep these samples and that they are not always properly handled.
Those who argue for keeping the samples in the two Biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) argue that these samples are just the known samples in the world. Other countries may well be lying to the World Health Organization (WHO) about having destroyed their samples. It’s also true that with so much information about Smallpox available, it’s possible that new samples could be engineered without having access to an existing sample.
The “lost” Smallpox vials were returned to the secure lab in Atlanta. They were destroyed in 2015 as additional samples were not needed.