The Smallpox and the Bees: The X-Files Model for Gene Therapy

Article by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

This article was published in Issue #13 (Nov. 1998) of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine.

Frontier Online Logo

Frontier Issue #13 Cover

Over the past five seasons of "The X-Files", the smallpox virus and genetically-engineered honey bees have been a recurring and enigmatic motif in the paranormal investigations of FBI agents Mulder and Scully. These two seemingly unconnected elements play significant roles within the series' alien conspiracy story arc and as the series has progressed, clues have been provided on the exact nature of these roles. Though pundits have often derided the consistency of the so-called 'mythology' arc to the point of accusing series creator Chris Carter of making-it-up-as-he-go-goes, the appearance and application of the smallpox virus and the bees have been remarkably consistent. In fact, the purpose of the virus and the bees in the universe of "The X-Files" seems to have some basis in scientific fact.

The Smallpox Virus

Smallpox is a fatal scourge that has killed millions throughout human history, and has even toppled entire cultures (the fall of many Native American cultures for example). The infectious agent in smallpox is the variola virus, a member of the orthopoxvirus family. It was not until 1796 that modern science developed a new weapon to fight this ancient scourge-- a vaccine. Edward Jenner, a doctor, noticed that milkmaids who had become infected with the less morbid cowpox disease became immune to smallpox. It was later learned that the cowpox disease was caused by a another virus in the orthopoxvirus family called vaccinia. Through exposure to the cowpox virus, the antibodies created by the body's immune response also conferred protection against infection by the smallpox virus. This immunological response served as the basis for the modern smallpox vaccine, in which the patient is injected with a weakened strain of the vaccinia virus to create an immune response to the smallpox virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) initiated the Smallpox Eradication Program (SEP) in 1967, a global immunization program. This initiative was so successful that the last natural smallpox victim was found in Somalia in 1977, and smallpox was declared eradicated in the early 1980s after no further cases were identified. Though routine administration is no longer required, the smallpox vaccine is still administered as a precautionary measure to military personnel and at-risk populations. The only remaining samples of the smallpox virus now exist in the quarantined laboratories of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Russia's Research Institute for Viral Preparations, but are scheduled for destruction in the near future.

Appearances of the Smallpox Virus and the Bees in "The X-Files"

The smallpox (variola) virus, and its close cousin the cowpox (vaccinia) virus have shown up numerous times in the conspiracy arc of "The X-Files". The smallpox virus made its first appearance in the second season cliffhanger, "Anasazi", in which the alien-human hybrid bodies that Mulder found in the buried railcar had smallpox vaccination scars.

In the following season's "Paper Clip", Mulder and Scully stumbled onto a vast genetic database consisting of thousands of medical files that were stored in an abandoned West Virginia Mine ("Lots and lots of files", as Scully noted). These medical files formed a comprehensive DNA database for every man, woman, and child born since the 1950s, and the genetic data had been secretly collected during smallpox inoculations, as part of the Smallpox Eradication Program.

This genetic database was seen again in the fourth season opener "Herrenvolk", when Scully discovered reams of encoded data stored on the computer terminal belonging to the Jeremiah Smith clone. Further examination revealed that the code was based on the nucleotide sequences of the cowpox virus (the basis of the smallpox vaccine), and that each one of the millions of human beings that had been given the smallpox vaccine had 'tagged' with a unique genetic variant of the cowpox virus. This task of tagging and genetic record-keeping had apparently been carried out as part of Bill Mulder's (Agent Mulder's late father) work on Operation Paper Clip, a secret government project aimed at creating an alien-human hybrid.

This episode also marked the first appearance of the genetically-altered bees. The bees were found to be pollinating an unidentified, possibly alien, species of plant at the Canadian colony. Furthermore, the toxic venom in the bees' stingers contained a fatal variant of the smallpox virus, as witnessed by the death of the television repairman, and the smallpox-like scars on the Alien Bounty Hunter after being stung.

The smallpox vaccine returned in "Tunguska", only this time it served as the vehicle for the vaccine against the Black Cancer, a mysterious oil-like substance that 'infected' its victims and placed them into a catatonic state. During Mulder's imprisonment at the Russian gulag, he was given a smallpox vaccination prior to his Black Cancer exposure. The smallpox vaccination apparently provided Mulder immunity to the Black Cancer, without any ill effects.

The bees returned a few hours later in "Zero Sum", when the Syndicate conducted a field test in a schoolyard full of children in South Carolina. However, this time, the lethality of the bees had diminished from "Herrenvolk", as the unwitting test subjects suffered multiple stings without dying. However, like the attacks witnessed in "Herrenvolk", the lesions that erupted resembled those of smallpox. When the children were brought to a local hospital, U.S. Military personnel took over their treatment, though it is unknown what sort of treatment was administered. On initial inspection, it would seem that the Syndicate was testing the ability of the bees to deliver the smallpox virus. However, other valid interpretations would be that the Syndicate had been testing the effects of the new smallpox virus, or the efficacy of a vaccine to counter the effects of this new smallpox virus.

Finally, in "The X-Files: Fight the Future", the bees reappeared at a Syndicate test facility on the Texas border. However, instead of acting as carriers for the smallpox virus, the bees carried the Black Oil within their venom, which was derived from genetically-altered corn crops. The Black Cancer vaccine, first seen in "Tunguska", was also used to treat Scully, who had become infected by the Black Oil, though it was not clear if this vaccine was based on the smallpox vaccine.

So what does it all mean?

What exactly are the roles of the smallpox virus, the closely-related cowpox virus, and the genetically-engineered bees in the colonization plans? Based on the evidence seen during the series, the smallpox virus is most likely being used as a vector for the delivery of alien DNA. Various crops, such as the 'ginseng' in "Herrenvolk" or the genetically-altered corn in "The X-Files: Fight the Future", serve as reservoirs for the altered smallpox virus. These crops are pollinated by the bees, which then deliver the altered smallpox virus to a human host by the bee's stinger.

The basis for these conclusions are:

Based on these observations, it seems that the smallpox virus is being used to introduce alien DNA or some kind of biological toxin to human populations, with bees as the delivery vehicle. The end result would be either the Syndicate's plan for 'inventing the future', helping humanity evolve with the assistance of alien DNA, or eradicating humanity to make room for the Colonists. As revealed to Mulder in "The X-Files: Fight the Future", at the advent of colonization, the President will declare a national emergency and the entire country will fall under the jurisdiction of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). It is at this time that the genetically-engineered bees would disperse an unknown biological entity on the unsuspecting population. Whether it is the Black Oil, which appears to be the colonizing force (according to the recent feature film), or a vaccine against the Black Oil, still remains to be seen.


So beneath all the deus ex machina plotting and altered premises that crop up on the weekly series, is a remarkably coherent scientific undercurrent in "The X-Files". The ultimate outcome of the interplay between the alien-government conspiracy, the smallpox virus, and the bees has yet to be seen, but the scientific basis for at least this aspect of the mythology arc is nonetheless fascinating.

Go Back to Genre Television