The end of the COVID-19 pandemic may, at long last, be visible on the horizon. While the United States still has a ways to go in getting a majority of the population vaccinated, the defeat of the pandemic will be upon us sooner rather than later. Many scientists have described COVID-19 as a ‘hundred-year pandemic’, meaning most if not all of us have never experienced something like this.
This ongoing coronavirus crisis reminded me of a story that I first read a number of years ago, about another potential pandemic and its possible ramifications. In order to understand the beginning of this threat, it becomes necessary to travel to the far edge of the world.
The Yamal Peninsula stretches for 435 miles across the Arctic Circle and boasts an average yearly temperature that is below freezing. The area encompasses part of the Siberian tundra, home to some of the harshest and most unforgiving terrain on Earth.
This being the case, the region rarely has to worry about hot weather. After all, the Arctic Circle boasts notoriously short summers. The ground is almost always covered in a layer of permafrost, and most rivers in the area are frozen for the majority of the year. When the rivers do begin to thaw, it provides an opportunity for organisms to thrive, and researchers began to take notice in 2016.
That year, dozens of Siberians were hospitalized with anthrax when warmer weather began to move in. The deadly disease was thought to have originated from the corpses of humans and reindeer that had been frozen under permafrost. When the layer of ice melted, the anthrax spores were able to spread and infect numerous individuals, many of whom would later succumb to the disease.
Researchers were alarmed by the discovery of these anthrax spores, and they then began to look into other diseases that could, in theory, have been held at bay by the Siberian climate. They discovered that there could potentially be a long-dormant enemy lying beneath the ice: the Variola virus, better known as smallpox, the only disease that humanity has ever eradicated from the planet.
Scientists believed that smallpox spores could have potentially been living underneath permafrost in the Yamal Peninsula, alive and very much contagious. The beginnings of their theory go back over a century. “Back in the 1890s, there occurred a major epidemic of smallpox. There was a town where up to 40 percent of the population died,” said a Russian researcher. “Naturally, the bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost soil.”
If buried anthrax spores could survive in a dormant state, it doesn’t defy reality to think that the smallpox virus could do the same. The melting ice, combined with rising floodwaters, means that frozen bodies riddled with smallpox could have been uncovered, re-exposing the spores and allowing the deadly sickness to rage once again.
However, there is no cause for concern, at least not from this situation. After all, this research was conducted over four years ago, and obviously, there was not a worldwide smallpox outbreak (COVID-19 has the monopoly on global pandemics for now). This likely means that the frozen spores from the Yamal Peninsula will not come back to haunt us. Despite this, it does beg the question- did science just get lucky with this incident? Just because smallpox has been eradicated, does that truly mean that it is gone forever? Or is this deadly foe lying silent somewhere, waiting for the perfect opportunity?
First of all, it needs to be stated that the risk of smallpox returning via a natural path is extremely low. “Even if live smallpox virus were accidentally released in a lab, it would be unlikely to spread disease in the general population,” said LiveScience.com in a 2014 report. In addition, the only remaining controlled samples of smallpox in the world are securely locked in only two locations: the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, and the VECTOR Institute in Koltsovo, Russia. Both of these locations are monitored around the clock under the auspices of the World Health Organization.
However, just because these samples are kept in a secured environment doesn’t mean that accidents can’t happen. In fact, there was reportedly a fire at the VECTOR Institute less than two years ago. Experts, however, insisted that there was no risk. “Incineration would in all likelihood destroy all of those viruses, including Variola virus,” said Grant McFadden, director of the Center for Immunotherapy at Arizona State University. Still, this does prove that, no matter how careful people are, accidents are still a part of life.
Then, there is the potential for smallpox to be used as a bioweapon, likely by a terrorist group or warmongering nation. While this, again, is an extremely unlikely scenario, it is probably the only one that could ever really happen. The New York Times reported in 2013 that the United States had started to stockpile smallpox medicine in case of a global disaster.
Additionally, it turns out that creating smallpox, or at least a similar variant, by unnatural means may not be as impossible as it sounds. In 2017, scientists reportedly created a relative of smallpox, called horsepox, in a lab. Horsepox “is not harmful to humans, but the findings suggest that it’s possible for people to make the deadly smallpox virus in a lab,” said LiveScience.com.
So what would really happen if smallpox were to somehow return? Simply put, some people would almost certainly die. As an eradicated disease, the public has not been routinely vaccinated against smallpox since 1972. Plus, the last known case of smallpox in the United States occurred in the 1940s. This means that the majority of the population does not have any built-in immunity to the Variola virus.
If smallpox were to start rampaging, it would take no prisoners. The disease killed 300 million people in the 20th century. The mortality rate was around 30 percent, and the CDC estimates that three out of every ten people who contracted smallpox died. The disease was extremely contagious as well and historically spread through populations like wildfire. To imagine what would have to take place during a modern outbreak to stop the spread of this virus is nearly unimaginable compared to the initial handling of COVID-19.
However, this is also assuming that smallpox has already begun to spread across the country uncontrolled. The most likely scenario for the beginning of a smallpox outbreak has been well documented. “If smallpox is released into the United States as a bioterrorist attack, public health authorities will find out once the first person sick with the disease goes to a hospital,” the CDC says. “Local public health authorities would then alert public health officials at the state and federal level.”
If the virus were to continue to spread, a number of emergency scenarios would likely be put into place. There would likely be mandatory quarantines nationwide. All borders in and out of the country would be shut down. The federal government would communicate with the CDC to ship out smallpox vaccines across the country from the Strategic National Stockpile.
If things got really bad, and deaths started to number in the thousands, there is the potential for the federal government to implement martial law. It is important to remember that, while COVID-19 is also extremely contagious, smallpox is significantly more deadly and affects people of all ages almost equally.
These are all scary scenarios to think about. The good news, however, is that for those from older generations who have been vaccinated against smallpox, most scientists agree that immunity lasts for the long term. The even better news is that the vaccine would likely be easy to distribute, and the United States would be able to take lessons from their current vaccine distribution plan for COVID and implement it into their handling of smallpox.
So, could smallpox ever return to plague humanity again? Hypothetically, yes, it could. Will it ever return, though? Probably not. However, in the unlikely event that a case does spring up, a quick response from both the government and public health officials would hopefully prevent any outbreak from getting out of hand.
While the potential that the Variola virus could be awaiting its return is certainly frightening, the truth is that the doctors and scientists of the world have come together to take every precaution. Hopefully, this means that this once common and deadly disease will never again see the light of day, whether it be in the far reaches of the Arctic Circle, or anywhere else.