Is There Still Smallpox in the World?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Smallpox is an acute, infectious virus that devastated many populations historically. With concerns about bioterrorism rising in the late 20th century, some people have wondered if this virus still exists. The short answer to this is yes, but the long answer is a bit more complicated.

A smallpox sample is kept at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia.
A smallpox sample is kept at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a global campaign to eliminate smallpox through vaccination. Many WHO employees traveled the globe, seeking out cases of naturally occurring illness and vaccinating the surrounding population to prevent its spread. In 1979, the WHO announced that the last wild case had been documented, effectively vanquishing the disease. Several laboratories retained samples of the disease, however, for use in research and vaccine development.

Vaccines effectively eliminated the spread of smallpox around the world.
Vaccines effectively eliminated the spread of smallpox around the world.

Scientists argued that the samples of live virus in labs shouldn't be destroyed, as they might some day be needed for research. If, for example, someone managed to engineer smallpox, perhaps from vaccine scabs collected prior to 1979, it would pose a serious bioterrorism threat. In addition, a natural pox virus might potentially evolve into a fatal illness, in which case samples of smallpox for comparison might be very useful when developing a vaccine.

Medical researchers are unsure as to whether the smallpox vaccine provides lifelong prevention.
Medical researchers are unsure as to whether the smallpox vaccine provides lifelong prevention.

As a result, it was agreed that two laboratories would retain samples, one in the United States and one in Russia. The American stock of the vaccine is located at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, where it is tightly guarded and periodically checked for integrity. The Russian stock is kept in Siberia, at the Vector State Research Center for Virology and Biotech, and these samples are also supposed to be closely guarded, although some international organizations have raised questions about the security at the location.

Some scientists are also concerned that other countries may actually have samples of the virus, or that they may have access to vaccine scabs, which carry a small reservoir of DNA that could be sequenced. Some of these samples may also have come from Vector, which has struggled with security issues. In the 1990s, this led to increased global concern about bioterrorism, since a large portion of the population had not been vaccinated for the disease. It has also been suggested that the vaccine may not last for a lifetime, so a huge portion of the world could be vulnerable.

For this reason, several countries have checked their vaccine stockpiles, to ensure that they are still good. In addition, several companies keep samples of part of the virus for use in making vaccines, ensuring that smallpox could be quickly dealt with if it emerges again.

Small pox samples used in research are contained and controlled using a stringent protocol and safety checklist.
Small pox samples used in research are contained and controlled using a stringent protocol and safety checklist.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I wonder if smallpox will kill more people.


Is there any way known to man that smallpox will be gone forever?


It's a good thing I'm naturally immune. I had three shots when I was young, and not a one took.


The original vaccine was created by Edward Jenner, who found that milk maids who had been infected with cow pox, a mild viral infection of a cow's udder which causes a sore, were also immune to smallpox. Today, the vaccine for smallpox is a live (not dead like most vaccinations such as the flu shot or tetanus) virus known as Vaccinia. You receive that virus, and then become immune to smallpox.

The issue is, this vaccine may be mostly safe, but it poses some serious risks to young children or those with pre-existing skin conditions. Also, our stockpiles are slim, and cranking out more vaccines is slow and expensive, which would mean some people may not get vaccinated. Furthermore, viruses are extremely adaptable. Viruses only have eight genes, (11 for rotaviruses) which allow them to adapt and mutate to avoid being thwarted by vaccines.

You'll notice that the flu shot you receive every year is different, because influenza rapidly adapts. So you see, there is no "cure" for viruses. Not a single one. We don't know how to destroy common viruses such as herpes or influenza. While we can destroy bacteria, viruses will always be in your system. A vaccine isn't going to do you a bit of good if you already have a virus, so you get to watch your loved ones sit there and receive basic maintaining treatments such as IV fluids, and treatments for the symptoms, but they have to wait it out.

If we discovered how to destroy a virus, it would have to be specialized for each virus. So if we destroyed the smallpox virus, we'd be out of a treatment. And let me assure you, that although smallpox may no longer infect the human population, it is out there and it will be back. Or something worse.

So, now knowing how easy it would be for smallpox to adapt, and how questionable the vaccine and the availability of it is, please ask again why we haven't destroyed the smallpox virus yet.


Am I crazy in my thoughts here? We are keeping the virus in case we need to deal with it again and create a vaccine. How was this vaccine originally made?

If smallpox broke out again, for whatever imaginable reason, why would we need a store of the original virus to fight the outbreak? Why couldn't a situationally relevant vaccine again be developed, and briskly too, considering our current state of "high technology"?



I think that we should keep the samples, not just for fear of foreign nations attacking each other biologically, but for fear of free radicals like psychopathic terrorists who want to cause damage. Better safe than sorry.


I worry that people with bad intentions will wage some kind of biological warfare on the world. There is also the potential for cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation, which could ruin us. The world should realize that these threats exist and keep a wary eye on them.


In keeping smallpox, it seems that there is a residual fear of a "smallpox gap" left over from the Cold War era. If people are genuinely afraid that other nations would use these kinds of weapons for domination, we have a global societal paranoia which affects every area of study and advancement. Only when we realize that the world has no choice but to unite will we be able to advance as a civilization again.


It's interesting how there has always been a debate about keeping smallpox virus, and it does make sense. On the one hand, you want to believe that all other countries are honest and show good faith by getting rid of all of the samples that we have and hoping that everyone will do the same. On the other hand, it's hard not to want to be realistic and keep some smallpox to make a vaccine from in case another country does use smallpox as a weapon. I just sincerely hope that I don't lie in a country that would be actively thinking about using it as a weapon because that is just absolutely wrong.

Post your comments
Forgot password?