In 1971, a woman in Kazakhstan near the Aral sea died of smallpox. How did she get it? It was harvested, weaponized, let out in a controlled test, and got out of control. Here's how the USSR saved the world from the smallpox outbreak it caused.
The elimination of smallpox can legitimately be considered one of the great achievements of the 20th century. The disease had ravaged the world for centuries, one of its variations killing about a third of the people it infected and blinding a further five percent. An international coordinated effort to eradicate the disease in the wild started in 1950, and was successful by 1980. In a generation, smallpox was gone in the wild.
It lingers today, kept in labs, despite protests from people who believe it should be eliminated. One of the greatest arguments against elimination of the virus is the fact that potent varieties of it can still be let out into the wild by accident or design. We know that there are — or at least until very recently there were — such varieties in labs, because they were let out into the wild, by accident and design.
Due to a massive vaccine drive in Moscow in the late 1950s, smallpox had been eliminated around the city until one citizen came back from India with a particularly unpleasant form of the disease. The man had been vaccinated, but the potency of the vaccination declined, and the strain was virulent. Forty-six people fell ill, people scrambled to get updated vaccinations, and the outbreak died away. Quietly, samples were taken and moved to a lab in what is now Kazakhstan. The samples were cultivated, and in 1971, they were let out into the air above an island in the Aral sea.
No boats could approach the island, but one boat, nine miles out, visited regularly to collect and test algae for unrelated fishing research. The woman in charge of the collection was infected, but only got sick after she had returned to the town of Aralsk. She infected more people, and two children died, along with the woman herself. They all succumbed to hemorrhagic smallpox, a version of the disease that starts by causing the blood vessels under the skin to leak blood, and ends with the person bleeding from every orifice. The virus was now off the island and in civilization. This could have gone very badly for the whole world.
As usual, vaccines came to the rescue. The three people who had died had never been vaccinated; the government quarantined the town and gave out 50,000 vaccines in 14 days. Other people got sick, but they didn't die. This incident is one of the cases that vaccination workers point to when it comes to showing the effectiveness of vaccines. Within days, what could have been a devastating outbreak was contained.
The incident is also what people point to when they argue that lab supplies of smallpox need to be eliminated. The Soviets were not the only ones to let smallpox out into the wild. The last person to die from smallpox contracted the virus after it escaped from a British lab.