Last week, six vials of smallpox virus were discovered in a disused closet at the National Institutes of Health, where they had lain, forgotten and misplaced, for over 30 years. Some of them were found to contain live specimens, meaning that this dangerous virus—once considered to have been eradicated from the face of the planet—had the capacity to infect and spread.
During one of several trips I took to Costa Rica more than a decade ago, I visited a small insectarium where a guide described something he called an assassin bug. Also known as the kissing bug, this insect (in actuality a family of more than 100 species) is known to bite people near their mouths during the night—attracted by their breath.
The Ebola virus has emerged in three West African countries where it had not previously been reported: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In early July, health ministers from 11 countries and representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO) and relevant partner organizations met in an emergency two-day meeting in Accra, Ghana, to strategize on containing the worsening crisis.
Most people would agree that keeping track of dangerous material is generally a good idea. So it may come as a surprise to some that the arrangements that are supposed to account for weapon-grade fissile materials—plutonium and highly enriched uranium—are sketchy at best. The most recent example involves several hundreds kilograms of plutonium that appear to have fallen through the cracks in various reporting arrangements.