Scary Discovery

14 Jul

Investigators have discovered vials of Smallpox virus dating back to the 1950’s.

“They were found in an unused portion of a storeroom in an FDA laboratory, located on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland.”

-The Raw Story, July 8th 2014

Smallpox is a horrible virus, causing terrible sores and was responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century alone. It’s also responsible for wiping out unknown millions of Native Americans who caught it from European explorers and colonists. The development of the Smallpox vaccine and the virus’ eradication in the wild is one of the triumphs of modern medicine. The World Health Organization made the following declaration in 1980:

“Having considered the development and results of the global program on smallpox eradication initiated by WHO in 1958 and intensified since 1967 … Declares solemnly that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America.”

—World Health Organization, Resolution WHA33.3

It’s not yet known if these vials contain still active samples of Smallpox. Also of note is this quote from the story:

“If viable smallpox is present, the World Health Organization will be invited to witness the destruction of these smallpox materials, as has been the precedent for other cases where smallpox samples have been found outside of the two official repositories.”

According to international agreements, only two places in the world are authorized to keep samples of smallpox: the CDC in Atlanta and the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Novosibirsk, Russia.”

-The Raw Story, July 8th 2014

“As has been the precedent for other cases,” meaning that this has happened before! Not to mention the two labs which we know still keep samples for study. And while I understand why we should keep samples of the virus around for study, the gamer in me can’t help but think of all the horrible potential this offers.

If all this isn’t scary enough, there is an even darker chapter in the history of Smallpox. In the 1970’s the Soviet Union was putting a huge amount of resources into their biological weapons program, including work to weaponize the Smallpox virus. This lead to an accidental release of the virus from their facility on an island in the Aral Sea. A nearby ship had accidentally sailed into the restricted waters and one crew member was on deck at the time. She was infected and spread the virus to others. Most of the people infected had been vaccinated against Smallpox but suffered symptoms anyway, suggesting that the strain developed in the laboratory was able to overcome the vaccine. At least two unvaccinated children died. The Soviets moved quickly to contain the outbreak and to cover it up, officially reporting it as an outbreak of Anthrax caused by poorly prepared meat. (Details of this can be found in the book The Dead Hand)

The idea of a virulent plague kept in a long-forgotten laboratory is the stuff of nightmares.

Which of course makes it perfect for gaming, particularly of the Espionage or Superhero genres. A game could be based on an archivist discovering an entry about a top secret lab where such samples were kept. When terrorists steal her notes the race is on to rediscover the laboratory and secure its contents.

Oh, one final note. The Soviet Union based their biological weapons facility on Vozrozhdeniya Island, also known as Rebirth or Renaissance Island, to keep it isolated. At the time the Aral Sea was the fourth largest sea in the world. However massive irrigation projects have all but drained the sea in what some have called the worst environmental disaster in the world.

Vozrozhdeniya ceased being an island in 2008. Anyone, or anything, can now walk out to it. Or away from it. Recognizing the threat this posed to the world, the United States and Uzbekistan conducted a cleanup project of the facility back in 2002.

Hopefully they found everything and there isn’t a forgotten part of the lab where vials of weaponized Smallpox are still waiting to be found.

Sleep tight!

The Aral Sea, from 1989 to 2008.

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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Gaming, History


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