Cowpox virus (CPXV) is described as the source of the first vaccine used to prevent the onset and spread of an infectious disease. It is one of the earliest described members of the genus Orthopoxvirus, which includes the viruses that cause smallpox and monkeypox in humans. Both the historic and current literature describe "cowpox" as a disease with a single etiologic agent. Genotypic data presented herein indicate that CPXV is not a single species, but a composite of several (up to 5) species that can infect cows, humans, and other animals. The practice of naming agents after the host in which the resultant disease manifests obfuscates the true taxonomic relationships of "cowpox" isolates. These data support the elevation of as many as four new species within the traditional "cowpox" group and suggest that both wild and modern vaccine strains of Vaccinia virus are most closely related to CPXV of continental Europe rather than the United Kingdom, the homeland of the vaccine.
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