Weird Nature Smallpox Could Possibly Make A Comeback - But What Exactly Is It?  

Beth Elias
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Tuberculosis, polio, the bubonic plague, and smallpox are all diseases of the past that are long gone... right? Turns out, that may not be true. Smallpox may still exist, frozen in the tundras of Siberia. It's unclear how long smallpox can survive after someone dies, but traces of the virus have been found in well-preserved mummies and frozen bodies.

What is smallpox? The disease once ravaged the globe, particularly in the late 20th century, but it's been around for potentially thousands of years. It killed hundreds of millions before a vaccine was developed in 1796, but the disease continued to spread for decades. In 1980, the World Health Organization finally declared smallpox eradicated, but scientists now think there may be reason for concern. In 2016, old anthrax spores were revived in Siberia and spread rapidly after old graves melted from the permafrost, killing thousands of reindeer and even one child. Who's to say the same thing won't happen with smallpox? 

Smallpox symptoms can be hard to diagnose, considering that it can initially look like chicken pox or other rashes. The small bumps cover the body, but eerily, also in the preserved corpses, scabs and bumps for hundreds of years. The effects of smallpox have even been found in a mummy from 3,000 years ago. It's those scabs that contain smallpox DNA. This debilitating disease kills a third of those it infects, so let's hope that smallpox doesn't make a comeback.

Smallpox Threatens To Reemerge In Siberia

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In 2016, global warming caused the graves of those who died from anthrax to thaw, reactivating the dormant spores. The virus soon spread to a nearby town where about 100 people were infected and a child and thousands of reindeer died as a result. Could the same thing happen with smallpox? Scientists aren't yet sure, but they're closely monitoring the possibilities.

In the 1890s, 40% of a town called Kolyma in Siberia died from smallpox, and now those graves are in danger of melting as the permafrost thaws under climate change. Just as spores of anthrax were released into the air, so follows the possibility of the smallpox spores. Though scientists have found only smallpox DNA and not the live virus so far, that doesn't mean the risk isn't there. 

North Korea Could Use Smallpox In Biological Warfare

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Though smallpox hasn't been seen since 1977, there's reason to be concerned that North Korea could use the virus for nefarious purposes. Although reportedly North Korea doesn't legally have the virus (only the US and Russia legally possess it), experts are fairly sure that North Korea has it — and they've been sending scientists to get the kinds of degrees to help create biological weapons of mass destruction. What's particularly damning is that North Korea has denied having any such program, but in 2016, Kim Jong-un showed off a new medical-type lab facility on TV, and the American government saw machines that are used to create exactly such weapons. 

What makes smallpox so dangerous — and how it killed so many prior to vaccinating against smallpox — is that it's spread through the air. So, you don't have to touch someone with smallpox lesions to get infected; you only need to breathe the air where someone coughed to put yourself at risk.

It's not just North Korea the world should worry about, though. Some of Russia's smallpox scientists may have been persuaded to work for Iran, with whom the US has volatile relations. In the late 1990s, a Russian defector told the US government about Russia's biological warfare efforts with smallpox and anthrax, supposedly because Russia believed the US was doing the same thing. 

A Third Of Those Infected With Smallpox Die

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Photo: Pan American Health Organization PAHO/flickr/CC-BY-ND 2.0

If you get smallpox, your chances of survival aren't exactly great, as one-third of those infected die from it. Hundreds of millions have died from the virus, sometimes wiping out entire cities or populations. The Aztecs, Incas, Aborigines, and Native Americans were particularly affected by the arrival of smallpox. When Columbus arrived in America, there were 72 million Native Americans, by 1800, there were only 600,000, thanks in large part to smallpox brought from overseas.

In 2016, Smallpox Was Discovered In New York

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Lest you think that remote Russians are the only ones who need to be afraid of a recurrence of smallpox, think again. In 2016, construction workers in Queens, New York came across an iron coffin with surprising contents: a mummified body with the telltale bumps of smallpox. Though the virus was not live in the mummy found in Queens, researchers still believe that a well-preserved mummy kept in cold conditions could still harbor a live virus.