It’s the summer of 1978. A woman with horrific pustules all over her body is lying in a hospital isolation bed in severe pain. Doctors wearing thick rubber gloves cautiously approach, they being the only people in the world allowed near her. After losing sight in one eye and losing her mind, she dies.
The date was September 11. Soon after there was a funeral, but no one was allowed to attend. That’s because she died from smallpox, a disease that had long since been wiped out in England.
How did that happen then?
How Smallpox almost came back to haunt England
The answer is a lab leak. As you’ll see today, similar leaks have caused absolute mayhem in the world, including the deadly anthrax leak now known as the “biological Chernobyl”. That is one utterly terrifying story and we’ll tell you about it in all its gory detail.
The woman who died such a lonely death was named Janet Parker, and she was the last person to die from smallpox in the UK. In fact, she was the last in the entire world.
(USE PHOTO: https://janetparker.birminghamlive.co.uk/ CREDIT: birminghamlive.co.uk)
Background to the story
Parker was a medical photographer working with the University of Birmingham Medical School. As researchers worked with smallpox down in the lab, she’d be up in her darkroom developing her photos. The disease might have been eradicated in the country, but that didn’t mean laboratory research stopped.
That’s why when she started feeling ill on August 11 of that year, she didn’t even consider it being smallpox. She told her doctor she had a headache, and then when he looked her over, he saw that she had red spots covering parts of her body. His first thought was chickenpox.
Not only was smallpox a thing of the past, but Parker had actually been vaccinated against the disease, albeit back in ’66.
But when her muscles started aching and those spots turned into a horrific rash now covering the soles of her feet, her legs, and elsewhere, doctors knew this was trouble.
(USE PHOTO: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-birmingham-45101091 CREDIT: BBC/A GEDDES H MORGAN)
She was whisked off to the hospital, after which she was given a diagnosis of “Variola major”, which is the worst type of smallpox.
The worrying thing was, this was a highly contagious disease, and Parker had been near a lot of people in the short time she was ill. First, her parents went into quarantine, but after an investigation, it was thought that about 500 people had been close to her. They were all placed in quarantine and vaccinated, while health specialists fumigated all the places where Parker had been.
One of those people was her mother, and in spite of her being vaccinated, she also got the disease. Thankfully, she didn’t seem to have a major strain.
The pain of seeing your daughter in agony
But then Parker’s father died while in hospital quarantine. It was thought that he actually died from a heart attack just after seeing his daughter on her deathbed, but an autopsy couldn’t be done because of the risk of him having smallpox and infecting someone else.
But the question on everyone’s mind was how did she contract the virus in the first place? Surely if she had gotten it, there had to be a leak and someone else might have gotten it.
As officials were pondering the leak theory, Parker started getting much worse. She went blind in one eye, and then one day, seemingly not knowing what was happening to her, she tried to clamber out of bed and rip out the drip in her arm. She died soon after.
This was so serious that no one could attend her funeral. It was, as the press called it, the loneliest kind of death. But such strict measures had to be taken. In the 20th century, the disease is thought to have killed around 300 million people, but as it’s an ancient disease, God knows how many it has felled throughout history.
Where did smallpox come from? Deadly Viruses
The origin of smallpox is unknown, but it’s thought to go back around 3,000 years. Pharaoh Ramses V, died from it in 1157 B.C. In the recent past when there was an outbreak, something like 20 to 30 percent of infected people died. Even if victims survived, they were often blinded or left horribly disfigured.
(USE PHOTO: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-birmingham-45101091 CREDIT: BBC/EDUCATION IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES)
So, when it made an appearance in 1978 when it was thought to have been wiped out all over the world, you can be sure people in England and elsewhere were somewhat in a tizz. As one professor later remarked, “Very, very quickly, national and then international press appeared- this was a major worldwide issue.”
One of the doctors who was responsible for the lab where it came from wrote a letter saying, “I am sorry to have misplaced the trust which so many of my friends and colleagues have placed in me and my work.” He died soon after, not from smallpox.
But was it his fault?
No one really knows. Investigations said it had definitely been a leak from the lab somehow. How, they didn’t know, but the hypothesis was that it could have come through an air vent, gotten onto equipment Parker had touched, or from an actual contaminated person.
We guess not many of our viewers were born when this happened, but suffice to say, the news was about as bad as news gets. In the end, everything turned out alright except for that one tragedy, and of course the tragedy of family members losing a beloved. In 1980, the WHO announced that the disease was gone from the world for good, maybe.
We added the “maybe”.
Prior to that, the last known smallpox lab leak happened in 1971, when scores of people got it while working at a secret facility in the Soviet Union where biological weapons were the name of the game. This became known as the “1971 Aral smallpox incident.”
A Russian researcher later wrote, “On Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea, the strongest recipes of smallpox were tested. Suddenly I was informed that there were mysterious cases of mortalities in Aralsk.”
He said that a young scientist had been aboard a ship and strayed too close to that island and then somehow got the virus. No one knows exactly how. Though she’d been vaccinated, she still got ill. She also took the virus back home, where she infected more people.
She recovered, but out of nine folks who were infected, three died. One of them was her little brother. 50,000 residents were subsequently vaccinated, and many people had to go into quarantine.
Whatever went on at that lab on the island we may never know, but even though it was abandoned a long time ago, strange things have happened in the waters surrounding the island.
(USE PHOTO: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170926-the-deadly-germ-warfare-island-abandoned-by-the-soviets CREDIT: BBC/ iStock)
What was the implication of the unexplained virus leak?
The BBC reported that tons of dead fish once appeared in the waters, while one time two fishermen were found dead in their boat. It’s thought they’d contracted plague.
Even more scary, one day 50,000 antelope grazing nearby just dropped down dead. All of them died within the space of an hour. This place has also been dubbed “Anthrax island”, with the BBC stating:
“Over the years the site flourished into a living nightmare, where anthrax, smallpox and the plague hung in great clouds over the land, and exotic diseases such as tularemia, brucellosis, and typhus rained down and seeped into the sandy soil.”
How the Ebola Virus neary sneaked out
We’ll come back to anthrax and a tale straight out of a horror movie, but first.
There’s probably no disease that scares people as much as the dreaded Ebola virus. That’s something we would hope never gets leaked from a lab… Well, it has in the past.
While Ebola can be deadly, it doesn’t make people look like zombies as many fake images on the internet seem to suggest.
(USE PHOTO: https://www.india.com/news/world/ebola-victim-rises-from-the-dead-168320/ CREDIT: INDIA.COM)
But when you hear that it kills human cells and can make them explode, thereby wreaking havoc on the immune system and making people bleed from the inside, well, it’s scary enough without the fake news. This is why people work with it in labs, so they can make vaccines.
But sometimes things go wrong. Handling viruses, them being invisible and all, isn’t like fiddling around with a bunch of Lego bricks.
There were news reports in 2009 that a woman working at Bernard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg got infected with ebola by accident. The good news is that she was given a vaccine shortly after and she was ok except for having a high fever.
Her name was never given to the press, because hey, it’s not cool to have your name associated with Ebola. It was said that she was working with the virus when she pricked herself with a needle, and we don’t know much more than that.
What happens when you catch the Ebola Virus?
When people contract Ebola they have a 50 to 90 percent chance of biting the dust. There is no cure as yet, so victims just have to hope their immune system kicks into action and does the job it’s supposed to do.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen to a Russian scientist who also accidentally pricked herself with a needle back in 2004.
Her name was Antonina Presnyakova. Every effort was made to save her life, but those efforts failed. All the people involved in trying to save her of course had to wear protective clothing and then be sent into quarantine.
What are the chances of another lab leak occuring?
Maybe some of you are now thinking, well, that will never happen to me. Others might be thinking, hmm, didn’t Covid come from a lab? The answer to that still remains a mystery, although as we write this, the New York Times has a story doing the rounds with the title, “You Should Be Afraid of the Next ‘Lab Leak’”
The article said when someone works in one of these high-level labs the safety protocols are incredibly strict. This is how one guy’s entrance to the lab was described:
“He carefully dons a pair of gloves, puts on the hooded suit with gloves attached to it, and then adds yet another pair of gloves. After a hose from a ceiling pipe is connected to a valve on his suit — ‘you inflate like the Michelin Man,’ he said — he passes through an airlock and into his lab.”
But, errors can happen and if they do happen, such as a suit with the tiniest of tears in it, the outcome could be incredibly bleak. It’s not like forgetting to turn off the oven.
Take for example the incident that happened at a lab in China where severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) escaped not once but twice in 2004. A spokesperson for the WHO explained, “We suspect two people, a 26-year-old female postgraduate student, and a 31-year-old male postdoc, were both infected, apparently in two separate incidents.”
How did this happen?
We actually don’t know because China isn’t telling, but we do know that the incidents happened two weeks apart. This was especially worrying because foreigners had worked in the same lab and later got on a plane and went back home.
In the end, hundreds of people were tested and had to be isolated, but it seems that it still infected another seven people outside of the lab. No one died, which was fortunate seeing as the fatality rate for SARS is somewhere between 11 and 14 percent.
But the question remains, how did it leak?
It was never found out, although one SARS expert said, “The lab might have all the right rules, but the people may not comply! For example, notebooks are not supposed to be taken out, a lot of things like that. A virus doesn’t jump on people!”
Since the SARS outbreak in 2003, there have been six different lab leaks, although it seems that none of them have been too serious. We did find at least one fatality, though.
Let’s just hope human error in those labs doesn’t happen much more. It’s almost always that, with Bloomberg writing that when a leak that happened in a Taiwanese lab was down to “botched decontamination of laboratory waste.”
It only takes one mistake, though, and if it is ever proved that Covid was leaked from a lab, well, just look at the havoc that has caused all over the world.
Do you remember the Anthrax Virus?
But now let’s talk about anthrax, we know you are dying to hear the anthrax story. One time that was leaked and the outcome was very grim indeed.
First of all, the reason why that place we talked about earlier was nicknamed “anthrax island” was because vast amounts of the stuff was put on barges in 1988 and transported there. We are talking about up to 200 tons of it. This is not the kind of place you want to go on your vacation.
The Nenets tribe in Russia knows all about that, since 72 two of them were not long ago infected with anthrax near where they lived in the town of Salekhard close to the arctic circle.
What were the implications of Anthrax exposure?
2,300 reindeer died as a result, but there was only one human death as well as many hospitalizations. The reason it happened was said to be down to global warming and the melting of ice melting. The bacterium was in animal bones that had been buried for a long time, but they came back to the surface when unusually warm temperatures caused a thaw.
The worst symptoms of anthrax have been described like this: “Inflammation of the membranes and fluid covering the brain and spinal cord, leading to massive bleeding (hemorrhagic meningitis) and death.”
A closer look at the Anthrax Virus
There are three types of anthrax and fatality rates differ for each one. Those three types affect the skin (cutaneous), the lungs (inhalation), and the digestive system (gastrointestinal). The first has only a 1 percent fatality rate if treated and 20 percent if untreated. The second has a fatality rate of 20 to 60 percent, and the third a 75 percent fatality rate even if the infected has sought treatment.
As you know, it comes from animals. But another reason for getting anthrax is because someone made it as a biological weapon.
That’s what happened in 1979 in an event sometimes called the “biological Chernobyl”
The Soviet Union at the time was developing biological weapons at a military research facility in the city of Sverdlovsk. This was all hush-hush of course, and when the leak happened the Soviet authorities said it was down to contaminated meat.
That was a huge lie, a lie about an event that killed many people.
At first, doctors saw that there was a sudden influx of people who had pneumonia and there was no good reason for it. Within a week, dozens of them were dead.
The cover up
American spies were over in Russia at the time and word got back to the US, and then the Soviets had some explaining to do. Their answer to the riddle was that those people must have eaten contaminated meat.
That’s how the story stayed for about a decade, after which, the truth came out. The 66 people that died had met their end because there had been a lab leak of anthrax.
It was discovered that scientists had been working on an anthrax biological weapon at compound 19 in the “special zone” when the wind blew the anthrax spores and they traveled to nearby villages. Russian researchers later said there was a defect in the system that carried the contaminated air to the exhaust and then outside.
One woman who got sick worked at a ceramics factory near the lab. One day she went into work and her boss asked her, “Why is it that your hands are blue?” That was probably because she had low blood oxygen levels.
She was rushed to the hospital, where she spent three whole weeks unconscious. By the time she came round, 18 of her friends at the same factory had already given up the ghost.
Protecting Mother Russia
She survived, but when she was well enough to sit up, the KGB visited her and made her sign a form that stated she’d be in serious trouble if she talked about the incident for a quarter of a century to come.
Soviet scientists of course knew that this was no food contamination event, but times being the way they were, they didn’t exactly voice their thoughts. One of them later said, “The task was to defend the honor of the country.”
US researchers said that the Russians weren’t trying to create a vaccine-resistant strain of anthrax, with one of them saying, “that doesn’t mean it wasn’t nasty. It was extracted from people who were killed by it.”
The New York Times did a story on this not long ago, which is where we got the blue hands story from. The article also said that this anthrax leak incident proves that authoritarian governments can suppress the truth for quite a long time, and if they could do that then, could they do that now?