Vikings Had Early Version of the 'Deadliest Virus'

Turns out smallpox dates back at least 1,400 years
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 25, 2020 2:00 PM CDT
World's Deadliest Virus Found in Viking Remains
The 1,200-year-old remains of a Viking skeleton infected with small pox in Oland, Sweden.   (The Swedish National Heritage Board)

Those Vikings just keep making history. Not only did they settle North America and have female warriors, they apparently suffered from an early kind of smallpox—the disease the killed off hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century, the New York Times reports. The now-extinct strain turned up in the teeth of Viking remains in Northern Europe, dated 600 to 1050 AD; that predates the previous earliest case by 1,000 years. "We already knew Vikings were moving around Europe and beyond, and we now know they had smallpox," study leader Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge tells Science Daily. "People travelling around the world quickly spread COVID-19 and it is likely Vikings spread smallpox. Just back then, they traveled by ship rather than by plane."

The newly discovered strain—taken from remains in the UK, Russia, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden—descends from the same ancestor as modern smallpox but is an evolutionary dead end; it didn't evolve into 20th-century smallpox and may not have been deadly. "Maybe it was a mild disease for a while," a smallpox specialist writes in a study commentary. Which means what for us? Well, pox viruses don't closely resemble coronaviruses, but the thought of a virus getting deadlier isn't too comforting in the age of COVID-19. On the bright side, a global vaccination effort wiped out smallpox by 1980: "Smallpox is the only virus humans have managed to basically erase," Willerslev tells Courthouse News Service. "That's an achievement because it was the biggest killer of all known pathogens." (Read more smallpox stories.)

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