PerspectiveInfectious Disease

Was smallpox a widespread mild disease?

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Science  24 Jul 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6502, pp. 376-377
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd1214

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Summary

Smallpox—caused by variola virus (VARV), a poxvirus—was one of the most virulent diseases known to humans, killing up to 30% of infected individuals and 300 million to 500 million people in the 20th century. The year 2020 commemorates the 40th anniversary of smallpox eradication, the first human disease eradicated after a global vaccination campaign led by the World Health Organization (WHO). The last samples of VARV are kept in two high-security laboratories pending destruction, and fears about reemergence or deliberate release of VARV have not subsided (1). Smallpox eradication is one of the most successful stories of public health, but the origin of the deadly virus remains an enigma. On page 391 of this issue, Mühlemann et al. (2) report the identification of VARV in archaeological remains from the Viking Age (600 to 1050 CE) that reveals new information about the origin of VARV and its evolution in human populations.

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