Demon in the Freezer
May 17, 2016 12:41 PM   Subscribe

A brief exploration of the last remaining - and still potentially lethal - stockpiles of Variola vera a.k.a. the smallpox virus, from award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. The last naturally occurring case was that of Ali Maow Maalin's in 1977 Somalia, two years before WHO certified its global eradication. The last recorded death due to the disease, however, occurred in 1978 Birmingham: University of Birmingham medical school photographer Janet Parker, whose death put the city in quarantined lockdown.
posted by Doktor Zed (16 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
It appears that the responsible party was Professor Henry Bedson, or as I like to call him, Time Traveling Ron Howard.
posted by slkinsey at 1:13 PM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Still dreading that there will be another case (or undetected case) of an old freezer being thawed out for surplusing and oh-fuck-whats-that-at-the-back.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:17 PM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

related: Demon in The Freezer, by the hyperbolic Richard Preston. At least puts events in sequence and frames the threat well.

no video at work - dunno if this is mentioned in the vid
posted by j_curiouser at 1:22 PM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Years ago, I remember a research institute-wide email going out asking whose samples labeled "polio" those were in liquid nitrogen freezer number 34. It made me a bit nervous.
posted by sciencegeek at 1:54 PM on May 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yeah, i'm a bit disappointed the article doesn't mention that the title is ripped from Preston's book. Scary stuff. It's the one thing that would instantly turn me into a prepper and make me head for the hills.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:56 PM on May 17, 2016

I can remember from my childhood that when we traveled to certain parts of the world we would have to get re-vaccinated for smallpox. Turned out that the vaccination scars those of us of a certain age still bear actually came from the formation of a single pock at the vaccination site.
posted by slkinsey at 2:00 PM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's mostly faded now, but as a kid I had a huge scar on my thigh from the smallpox vaccination. About the size of a thumbprint. My grandmother (who vaccinated me) once said it meant I would have died if I ever caught smallpox, though I don't know if that's really true.
posted by tavella at 2:13 PM on May 17, 2016

I consider myself relatively literate, even scientifically so. But what on earth does this mean?
Experts found there was not enough of the virus produced at the lab to cause death in the telephone room above. That would have required 11,812 gallons of the stuff hanging in the air – but the source was definitely the lab.
So the lab couldn't have killed the Birmingham photographer, but it also definitely did? I mean, I realize that smallpox can be transmitted through the air via droplets from sneezing and coughing, but according to the CDC it can also be transmitted through the air in enclosed spaces and via ventilation. So I'm not sure I understand why you'd need more than eleven thousand gallons of virus floating in the air to infect someone. That doesn't square with my previous understanding of the virulence of this disease.

I think the main issue with smallpox is that no one routinely vaccinates for it anymore because it is a relatively risky vaccination that is only effective for 3-5 years, so it could be an effective bioweapon sourced from newly unstable countries with a history of bioweapons research. The vaccine we use today is essentially the same as the one developed in the late 1700s and the antiviral studies have only covered poxes that animals can get. I get why this is a thorny problem. Since smallpox only cares about humans it's really tough to do thorough, predictive testing of the efficacy of new or old antivirals and vaccines.
posted by xyzzy at 2:21 PM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Huh...I have the vaccination scar. I didn't know I would have been vaccinated against smallpox, but I guess it wasn't totally gone yet....huh, but I just looked it up and mass vaccination supposedly ended before I was born. Could I have been vaccinated against some other pox-based disease?

THat final link from the Birmingham newspaper refers to Janet Parker as a "housewife" though she was clearly employed. I thought maybe it was a really old article, but it's from two days ago. Is the word "housewife" still commonly used in the UK, and isn't it weird to use it for someone working for pay outside the home?

I can't imagine how awful that doctor must have felt.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:27 PM on May 17, 2016

in preston's title, a closing chapter has him participating in a (legit) lab experiment where the IL-4 gene is manipulated in mice, 'blowing through' the immunization. do any experts know anything more about this?
posted by j_curiouser at 3:17 PM on May 17, 2016

I can't imagine how awful that doctor must have felt.

pretty bad

my bad, on closer read, this detail is in TFA
posted by j_curiouser at 3:22 PM on May 17, 2016

Yes, I saw in TFA that the doctor killed himself. I was more empathizing (sort of... I mean taking shortcuts with the smallpox virus is pretty damn reckless) than wondering what happened to him.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:57 PM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

So I called my parents and it turns out that though universal smallpox vaccination had stopped before I was born I was vaccinated before travel as a baby/toddler. And then I had no reaction so I was vaccinated again after I arrived at our destination. And that is why I have a smallpox vaccination scar even though I'm too young to have one.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:04 PM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Didn't Richard Preston also write a book about smallpox, also called 'Demon in the Freezer' in 2003?

Not referenced in the NYT article here. Weird.
posted by My Dad at 5:00 PM on May 17, 2016

I grew up about two miles from Catherine-de-Barnes; even now it's a pretty, rural place with narrow lanes and tall hedges. I was 12 in 1978 and remember reading about the case in the Evening Mail. To a 12-year old, the reporting seemed to go on forever, and I remember thinking that the lady in the hospital must be lonely because she was in isolation. I remember mom and dad talking about the old fever hospital, as it was known (one of my mum's sisters had been a patient there as a child for some contagious reason).

The hedges around Catherine-de-Barnes contained the very best blackberry bushes and we went there every autumn except for that year.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 4:34 PM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Experts found there was not enough of the virus produced at the lab to cause death in the telephone room above. That would have required 11,812 gallons of the stuff hanging in the air – but the source was definitely the lab.
Coming to this very late, but some searches suggest it was an argument made by defense witnesses at trial. There's a slightly more detailed discussion on page 503 of this document. (Let me know if you need a copy due to paywalls.)

The argument seems to be that only a very tiny fraction of the virus, when suspended in liquid and handled in the lab, would have ever become airborne. The experts argued that one particle out of 500M would have escaped into the air. The phrasing in the article is terrible - the actual argument is that they would have had to process tens of thousands of gallons of the stuff in beakers in order to create enough airborne material to make an infection likely, not that they would have needed tens of thousands of gallons "hanging in the air." This still seems like a batshit crazy argument, given the overwhelming evidence that they were responsible for the infection. But, I suppose one can't expect witnesses for the defense to provide a reasonable or unbiased analysis. (We really should expect them not to argue for five significant digits on an estimate of this kind though. These people are employed as scientists? Really?)

This horrible misreading of the court documents (or, more likely, the wikipedia article), combined with the obnoxious housewife label mentioned above, leads me to suspect this is a science writer who really ought to be doing something else with their life. Almost anything, really, would be better. Except perhaps practicing medicine.
posted by eotvos at 1:45 PM on May 22, 2016

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