The origins and genomic diversity of American Civil War Era smallpox vaccine strains

Ana T Duggan, Jennifer Klunk, Ashleigh F Porter, Anna N Dhody, Robert Hicks, Geoffrey L Smith, Margaret Humphreys, Andrea M McCollum, Whitni B Davidson, Kimberly Wilkins, Yu Li, Amanda Burke, Hanna Polasky, Lowell Flanders, Debi Poinar, Amogelang R Raphenya, Tammy T Y Lau, Brian Alcock, Andrew G McArthur, G Brian Golding, Edward C Holmes, Hendrik N Poinar

Genome Biol. 2020 Jul 20;21(1):175.

Vaccination has transformed public health, most notably including the eradication of smallpox. Despite its profound historical importance, little is known of the origins and diversity of the viruses used in smallpox vaccination. Prior to the twentieth century, the method, source and origin of smallpox vaccinations remained unstandardised and opaque. We reconstruct and analyse viral vaccine genomes associated with smallpox vaccination from historical artefacts. Significantly, we recover viral molecules through non-destructive sampling of historical materials lacking signs of biological residues. We use the authenticated ancient genomes to reveal the evolutionary relationships of smallpox vaccination viruses within the poxviruses as a whole.

Image: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy; Sylvia Whitfield, CC BY

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