Widespread vaccination programmes led to the global eradication of smallpox, which was certified by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and, since 1978, there has been no case of smallpox anywhere in the world. However, the viable variola virus (VARV), the causative agent of smallpox, is still kept in two maximum security laboratories in Russia and the USA. Despite the eradication of the disease smallpox, clandestine stocks of VARV may exist. In a rapidly changing world, the impact of an intentional VARV release in the human population would nowadays result in a public health emergency of global concern: vaccination programmes were abolished, the percentage of immunosuppressed individuals in the human population is higher, and an increased intercontinental air travel allows for the rapid viral spread of diseases around the world. The WHO has authorised the temporary retention of VARV to enable essential research for public health benefit to take place. This work aims to develop diagnostic tests, antiviral drugs, and safer vaccines. Advances in synthetic biology have made it possible to produce infectious poxvirus particles from chemicals in vitro so that it is now possible to reconstruct VARV. The status of smallpox in the post-eradication era is reviewed.
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