Saturday, April 25, 2020

"How Deadly Pathogens Have Escaped the Lab"

From Kelsey Piper's 3-20-19 article entitled "How Deadly Pathogens Have Escaped the Lab — Over and Over Again":

In 1977, the last case of smallpox was diagnosed in the wild.
The victim was Ali Maow Maalin of Somalia. The World Health Organization tracked down every person he’d been in face-to-face contact with to vaccinate everyone at risk and find anyone who might have caught the virus already. Thankfully, they found no one had. Maalin recovered, and smallpox appeared to be over forever.
That moment came at the end of a decades-long campaign to eradicate smallpox — a deadly infectious disease that killed about 30 percent of those who contracted it — from the face of the earth. Around 500 million people died of smallpox in the century before it was annihilated.
But in 1978, the disease cropped back up — in Birmingham, in the United Kingdom. Janet Parker was a photographer at Birmingham Medical School. When she developed a horrifying rash, doctors initially brushed it off as chicken pox. After all, everyone knew that smallpox had been chased out of the world — right?
Parker got worse and was admitted to the hospital, where testing determined that she had smallpox after all. She died of it a few weeks later.
How did she get a disease that was supposed to have been eradicated?
It turned out that the building that Parker worked in also contained a research laboratory, one of a handful where smallpox was studied by scientists who were trying to contribute to the eradication effort. Some papers reported that the lab was badly mismanaged, with important precautions ignored because of haste. (The doctor who ran the lab died by suicide shortly after Parker was diagnosed.) Somehow, smallpox escaped the lab to infect an employee elsewhere in the building. Through sheer luck and a rapid response from health authorities, including a quarantine of more than 300 people, the deadly error didn’t turn into an outright pandemic.
Could something like that happen today?
All over the world, bio research labs handle deadly pathogens, some with the potential to cause a pandemic. Sometimes, researchers make pathogens even deadlier in the course of their research (as Science Magazine reported last month, the US government just approved two such experiments after years of keeping them on hold).
Research into viruses can help us develop cures and understand disease progression. We can’t do without this research. But on a few notable occasions, it’s gone dangerously wrong and even killed people.
To read Piper's entire article, click HERE.

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