Smallpox virus vials were recently found at a Merck facility outside of Philadelphia, alerting the Department of Homeland Security. According to local news outlet WGNO, a researcher found the vials labeled “smallpox” in a freezer on Monday night while conducting vaccine research. But since there are two Merck sites near Philadelphia, officials cannot confirm where the vials came from.
CDC Finds No Trace of Smallpox-Causing Virus in the Vials
Philadelphia local news outlet Patch reported that officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that five of the vials found were labeled “smallpox” and 10 were labeled “vaccinia.”
Investigations revealed that there is no evidence that any of the vials recently found contained the variola virus, which causes smallpox. Instead, they found that the vials labeled “smallpox” contained the vaccinia virus, which is used in the smallpox vaccine.
Smallpox Virus Brought Illness and Death Throughout Human History
According to the CDC, the variola virus began infecting humans thousands of years ago that caused illness and death to people throughout history. Ancient human populations have suffered from recurring smallpox outbreaks from time to time, infecting millions of people.
It was not until the success of vaccination that the last natural smallpox outbreak in the US was stopped in 1949. By the year 1980, the World Health Assembly has declared the disease eradicated and no longer recorded any naturally-occurring smallpox.
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The Last Smallpox Patient
According to IFL Science, the last person to die of smallpox was medical photographer Janet Parker in 1978. She caught the virus when she used a telephone at Birmingham Medical School in England, where a lab containing samples of the smallpox virus was located below.
The lab was under the control of Professor Henry Bedson, a smallpox researcher whose study focuses on the variants of the virus that might cause a problem in eradicating the illness. Unfortunately, Parker caught the virulent strain called Abid, which likely escaped through an air duct and made its way to where Parker was using the telephone.
She and her family were quarantined, but Parker died shortly after her admission to the hospital. Meanwhile, Professor Bedson committed suicide before Parker’s death as he was horrified that he may have unleashed the disease he spent his life working on to eradicate.