Mummy sparks new theories around Smallpox

George Aitch 

I Dec 20 2016

Ben Janaway

You do not have much reason to fear smallpox. The virus was eliminated by 1980 and now is alleged to only exist in hidden research labs. Smallpox is understood to have plagued mankind throughout most of recorded history, but a recent discovery from a Lithuanian church has changed our understanding of this. The bug may not be as old as its thought.

This month, the remains of a mid-15th century mummy found in a crypt were examined and an ancient strain of the variola virus (which causes smallpox) was extracted. Under molecular clock analysis, the genome of this viral specimen was compared to 20th century specimens. By measuring internal breakdown of the virus' genetic structure, the team was able to better guage the age of the disease. 

It was found that the rate of gene degradation was constant between them, meaning that the virus may have evolved much later than we previously supposed. From this we can plot that the smallpox virus probably emerged around the 14th century.

Early accounts of smallpox were retroactively assigned as such based on the descriptions of pustules that the disease famously creates. However, without modern diagnostic techniques, it would be easy for other diseases presenting in a similar manner to be falsely recorded as smallpox. This means that historical accounts may be inaccurate and led to a modern misunderstanding of smallpox’s reign.

A similar problem exists with leprosy, leading many recent translations of the Bible to opt instead for ‘dreaded skin disease’.

The team responsible for this interesting discovery hope in the future to plot more precisely the birth of smallpox and also examine in which animal reservoir the disease came from.


Smallpox is a an infection caused by Variola.  Signs and symptoms vary with severity, but the classical picture is of a rash and fever. More severe forms could be fatal. There is no specific treatment, just supportive with fluids. The mainstay of battling the disease has been prevention, with mass vaccination said to have ‘eradicated’ wild disease in 1977.
Any opinions above are the author's alone and may not represent those of the NHS or Mind and Medicine. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.
Duggan AT, Perdomo MF, Piombino-Mascali D, Marciniak S, Pionar D, Emery MV, Buchmann JP, Duchene S, Jankaskas R, Humphreys M, Golding GB, Southon J, DeVault A, Rouillard JM, Sahl JW, DuTour O, Hedman K, Sajantila A, Smith GL, Holmes EC, Poinar HN. (2016). 17th Century Variola Virus Reveals the Recent History of Smallpox. Current Biology.
Hammond, Edward (2007). "Should the US and Russia destroy their stocks of smallpox virus?". BMJ. 334 (7597): 774.
American Bible Society. (1976). Good news Bible: The Bible in Today's English version. New York: American Bible Society.