Smallpox Gets a Pardon and You Don’t (Blame Iran)


Each week, Death by Science combs the dark world of science and technology to find out what’s most likely to kill you. Often terrifying, sometimes humbling, our discoveries always make great water-cooler conversation. This week, we examine the World Health Assembly’s decision to let smallpox hang around for a couple more years. SPOILER ALERT: It’s because of Iran!

Tuesday marked the end of the World Health Assembly, a two-week-long drug-packed festival full of sex, fighting, and hip-hop. If you had contracted ebola last week and wondered why you only got out-of-office replies from the World Health Organization, it was because of this event.

A peculiar decision from the Assembly was the agreement to wait until 2014 to destroy the two last-known stocks of smallpox in the world. That’s right, we had a chance to eradicate this hyper-contagious menace but couldn’t pull the trigger.

In related news, the world’s two last remaining smallpox stocks held an assembly and passed numerous resolutions. Agreement 1: Kill all humans, including you.

The WHO’s eradication of the virus was one of the organization’s greatest achievements. By 1977, they had gone all Commando on the “ancient scourge,” administering vaccinations globally and cornering the last natural case of smallpox in Somalia.

There they landed two helicopters and stormed its compound, engaged in a firefight, and shot the smallpox in the eye. Metaphorically.

Samples were kept in order to continue the study of the variola virus, but even in controlled situations this proved risky; there was a fatal case of laboratory-acquired smallpox in 1978.

So why exactly did the World Health Assembly decide not to finish off these little, near-extinct bastards? Bill Hall, a representative from Health and Human Services, told us, “Iran and a handful of other countries blocked consensus around a widely supported resolution which would have asked all countries to affirm that they do not hold smallpox stocks.”

Ah yes, our old poker buddy Iran playing their cards close to the chest yet again. Smallpox just landed on the river and they won’t fold. Do they have the straight? America’s sitting to the left of the dealer and we need to protect our big blind. What were we talking about? Oh, right, smallpox.

According to Bill Hall, “The global public health community assumes that all nations acted in good faith; however, no one has ever attempted to verify or validate compliance with the WHO request. So there remains the possibility that undisclosed or forgotten stocks exist.”

Iran’s stance is nothing new and it closely mirrors their posturing when it comes to nuclear capabilities. A rogue state weaponizing the strain is a worst-case scenario, but even if the virus is just being kept by unknown entities for innocent reasons (sentimental value?), it could pose a danger.

We asked the World Health Organization’s Aphaluck Bhatiasevi if Iran may have stocks of smallpox, but she declined to answer speculative questions. Upon hearing this we withheld from asking, “Who would win in a fight, Superman or Godzilla?”

What Aphaluck Bhatiasevi did speculate was that given information held by the WHO, an accidental release of the smallpox would be more likely than a malicious leak. This is still feasible at least until 2014 due to this week’s stalemate at the World Health Assembly.

Little uproar or protest has been made in Washington about this development. Like any responsible media outlet, we will attempt to spin this issue in order to drum up the maximum amount of outrage from both the public and attention-whoring politicians. If Iran can’t scare a Republican-majority Congress into action, what will? Simple: money. We contacted the Centers for Disease Control to find out how much it’s costing THE TAXPAYERS to keep these smallpox stocks alive and deadly.

The CDC’s Kristen Nordlund responded, “Storing most viruses requires only the cost of freezer maintenance and electricity.” That’s right, your hard-earned money is powering a refrigerator in Atlanta. You think Ayn Rand would stand for this shit? Write your representative and demand that those liberal fat cats stop making smallpox-sicles on your dime. (She also added that funds go toward security measures to protect the stocks, but “smallpox-sicles” was really fun to write).

If in 2014 the World Health Assembly finally decides to destroy the last remaining smallpox stocks, will you be able to rest at night? Hell, no! Thanks to the sinister power of science, we can make the stuff from scratch.

As Kristen Nordlund told us, “The virus that causes smallpox is a large double-stranded DNA virus. Given the progress made in nucleic acid synthetic technologies it is likely possible to synthesize most of the genome. It would take considerable financial resources, as well as technologic know-how and skill to recreate the virus itself.”

Multi-national agreement or not, smallpox is comin’ to get you!

The five most terrifying things in science this week (in a very particular order):

5. Obsessive compulsives getting drunk on hand sanitizer
A University of Florida study found that “people who use excessive amounts of hand sanitizer may absorb small amounts of alcohol into the body, which can result in testing positive for alcohol consumption.” Soon, OCD sufferers driving home from their jobs as professional organizers and stand-up comedians will be pulled over and jailed for driving under the influence. Our already overcrowded prisons won’t be able to take the strain of these new inmates and will soon burst, sending murderers into the streets. Thanks, Purell, ya jagoffs!

4. Overachieving undergrads
Amelia Fraser-McKelvie, a 22-year-old undergraduate Aerospace Engineering/Science student at Monash School of Physics in Australia, made a breakthrough discovery during her summer study. Scientists have spent decades looking for the electron density in filaments of galaxies. Fraser-McKelvie “conducted a targeted X-ray search for the matter and within just three months found it.” Undergrads are supposed to spend their summers at two-day-per-week internships and smoking Salvia at Bonnaroo, not shooting X-rays at distant galaxies. Not only is Amelia wrecking the curve, she’s also teetering on tearing holes in the space-time continuum.

3. Particle colliders getting into pissing contests
The folks operating the Large Hadron Collider have done it again. This week, they announced that they had created quark-gluon plasma, a substance “more than a hundred thousand times hotter than the inside of the sun and…denser than a neutron star.” Physicist David Evans said, “Besides black holes, there’s nothing denser than what we’re creating.” The quark-gluon plasma will be “used to study what the universe was like a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.” Now those self-conscious researchers at CERN are going to try to one-up this discovery. After some back-and-forth showing off, one of these particle accelerators is going to create a black hole and we’re all going to get sucked in and miss Ashton Kutcher’s debut on Two and a Half Men.
[National Geographic]

2. Squids in space
A baby squid has hitched a ride on Endeavour’s final mission. NASA is using the sea creature as a carrier of Vibrio fischeri, a bacteria that the animal uses at the bottom of the ocean to illuminate its surroundings. The tests will be done to determine if the bacteria behaves the same in orbit. Once the study is done, the astronauts will kill the squid and return it to Earth for further testing. Why is this terrifying? After the World Cup, we learned that cephalopods like Paul the Octopus are psychic. An omnipotent anamorphous being in outer space — what does that sound like to you? Someone stop them before they kill that Squid-God!

1. Europeans in space
Europe the continent that is just getting Wedding Crashers in its theaters, has slated a lunar mission for 2018. The European Space Agency is planning an unmanned trip to the moon a cool 49 years after American humans first walked all over that rock. For nearly five decades, the moon was America’s hangout. Now Belgium & Co. are sending a robot up there and acting like they own the place. Soon it’ll be full of sidewalk cafés and all the moon men will ride bicycles and have socialized medicine. Science sure can be evil sometimes.

Nick Greene isn’t a professional scientist, but he tries really hard.

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