During the 1700s, it killed an estimated 400,000 people a year in Europe alone (including five reigning monarchs), and the 1900s, it is believed to have been responsible for nearly 500 million deaths worldwide.
For centuries, the dreaded smallpox virus was considered one of the deadliest diseases to humankind, killing nearly 30 percent of its victims and leaving most of its survivors disfigured for life.
But in the late 1960s, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched an international campaign to wipe out the highly contagious disease through a global vaccination operation.
The last endemic case of smallpox was recorded in Somalia in 1977, and in 1980, the WHO officially declared smallpox eradicated.
That year, the entire global population heaved a long-awaited sign of relief.
Finally, thanks to the unflinching commitment and dedication of a global scientific and medical community, the disease that had plagued humanity since the dawn of time and had been instrumental in the extermination of nearly 90 percent of the America’s indigenous populations, was a scourge of the past.
Or so we thought.
But in July, the U.S-based magazine “Science” published an unnerving article announcing that a group of Canadian researchers has managed to synthesize the horsepox virus, a close cousin to smallpox, from genetic materials obtained through the mail.
Like smallpox, until this experiment, horsepox as considered to be an extinct virus.
And while horsepox itself is not a threat to human life, it is a close enough relative to smallpox to sound alarm bells worldwide that its more deadly sibling could also be easily and inexpensively produced in laboratory conditions.
“There is no question about it,” warned virologist Gerd Sutter of Ludwig- Maximilian University in Munich, Germany.
“If it is possible with horsepox, it is possible with smallpox.”
The researchers responsible for the dubious discovery, led by University of Alberta molecular virologist David Evans, now find themselves caught up in a slippery-slope dilemma over whether to publicize their findings in a scientific journal or to avoid advertising the process by which they produced the horsepox virus.
Their objectives in synthesizing the virus were noble: to help develop new vaccines for smallpox with less serious side effects and to help “unravel the origins” of the lethal disease.
But Evans and his team are also well aware that detailing their synthesizing process could open the door for terrorist groups around the globe to follow their recipe and produce a new biological weapon that could threaten all mankind.
Evans readily admitted that the “dual-use” nature of the research makes its inherently controversial, but insisted that, even without publication, the process could easily be replicated by amateur scientists with malintent.
“The reality is that the risk was always there,” he said.
He also pointed out that the horsepox breakthrough could serve as a “platform for the development of new vaccines against other serious diseases,” including cancer.
Now, there is an intensifying debate swirling among the international scientific community as to whether the findings should be published.
As virologist Peter Jahrling of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, astutely noted: “The genie is already out of the lamp.”
With or without publication of the research, the possibility of terror groups or rogue nations producing their own batches of one of the most lethal viruses known to man is a reality.
And, sadly, just like the possibility of these entities using radioactive materials to launch nuclear or dirty bombs, it is only a matter of time until their wrath is unleashed through massive biochemical warfare, including, potentially, a new plague in smallpox.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].