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A pox office hit? Why ‘Pathaan’ can’t go ‘viral’ in real life

A pox office hit? Why ‘Pathaan’ can’t go ‘viral’ in real life

While the Bollywood hit brings up the matter of bio weaponisation of smallpox, experts say there is no fear the resurgence of the disease since strong containment measures are in place
Photo by Sanjay Kanojia/AFP

In the recent Bollywood hit Pathaan, the character of Jim (played by John Abraham), a soldier-turned-rogue-terrorist, weaponises a killer variant of the smallpox virus.

But fear not, in reality, ample measures are in place to prevent the virus from escaping highly secured labs, and there is no chance of the disease’s resurgence, say experts.

Smallpox is a contagious and serious infection caused by the variola virus. Its symptoms include fever and skin rashes. Three out of ten people who get the infection may succumb to it.

The smallpox vaccine — the first to be developed against a contagious disease — is no longer included in routine vaccination. The last case of smallpox was seen in Somalia in 1977. And in 1980, the disease was officially declared eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Smallpox virus present in two labs globally

In an email interaction with Happiest Health, Dr Giridhar R Babu, epidemiologist and head, lifecourse epidemiology, Public Health Foundation of India, said currently there is no evidence of the virus circulating in the human population.

“The smallpox virus is only known to exist in two officially designated laboratories: the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Russia and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States,” he says.

How was smallpox eradicated?

Speaking to Happiest Health, renowned virologist Dr Gagandeep Kang says that several reasons contributed to the eradication of smallpox:

  • Smallpox virus can exist only in humans. There are no animal reservoirs.
  • If infected, it is very visible. Hence it can be treated immediately.
  • The long incubation period of smallpox (seven to 19 days as per the CDC) helped in immunising those who came in contact with the infected person. The contacts develop an immune response because of the vaccination and won’t get infected.
  • Vaccines against smallpox worked efficiently.
  • If you survive natural infection or get immunised, the protection is lifelong

Measures in place to prevent virus escape

Dr Babu pointed out that the labs that house the virus have extensive measures to prevent its escape, including multiple physical and biological containment systems and rigorous protocols for handling it. 

“The WHO committee has met in many different sessions since 1986 and held intensive discussions about whether to destroy the virus. The committee has repeatedly postponed the date of destruction,” says Dr Babu.

Asked if the virus could be misused as a biological weapon, Dr Babu says, “Yes, although not the same way it was depicted in the movie [Pathaan]. It is theoretically possible that smallpox could resurge if the virus escaped from one of these laboratories or if it were to be released intentionally as a bioweapon.” That is why it is important to continue monitoring and improving the biosecurity measures to secure the virus and prevent its accidental or intentional release while ensuring its continued global eradication, he added.

He says there are discussions on whether the staff working in these laboratories need to be vaccinated more frequently to prevent any untoward events. “Currently, they are only being vaccinated once in 4.8 years (mean interval),” says Dr Babu.

Dr Babu believes that the only way forward is to destroy the virus in both laboratories. “Further, a stronger deterrent is essential to declare that any country, laboratory or scientist found with the smallpox virus would be guilty of a crime against humanity,” he says.

But Dr Kang sees no need to panic.

“No one is playing around with the virus. There is also a global agreement signed with WHO that no experimentation will be done,” she says.

Pathaan portrays the smallpox virus mutating to become more virulent. But Dr Kang says the smallpox virus is a DNA virus and is more difficult to change compared to the RNA viruses (like SARS-CoV2).

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2 Responses

  1. Wow !!.. Excellent work. Very informative. The existence of the POX virus in the laboratories is truly fearful. Keep writing kind of interesting articles.. 💐Sunitha

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