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The Leader of the Smallpox Eradication Effort Speaks About the Virus’ Rediscovery

Those of us who write about infectious diseases faced a conundrum last week, when the news broke that 60-year-old vials containing viable smallpox virus had been found on the National Institutes of Health campus. A responsible reporter always wants to talk to the experts in any subject. But when it comes to smallpox, experts can be hard to find.

Smallpox was one of the world’s worst killers, from prehistory through the first half of the 20th century. Yet there has not been a case of the dreadful disease anywhere since 1978, so few physicians working today have seen one. The virus is supposed to exist in only two highly secure stockpiles, so few scientists do research on it. And the aggressive campaign that chased the disease from the globe — the only human infection for which that claim can be made — ended 34 years ago. Many of the men and women who led it are in retirement, and a number have died.

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