Virions from a smallpox vaccine
What’s the News: Global health officials are expected to decide whether to destroy the world’s last caches of smallpox at the 64th World Health Assembly this week. The disease was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979, but two small stores of the virus remain: one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and one in a Russian government lab.
Now, public health officials are divided on how to ensure that the disease stays eradicated. Some say our best bet is to keep the remaining samples of the virus safe and continue to study them, then destroy them at a later date; others say the safest course is to destroy them now, once and for all.
The Case for Keeping It:
- People who have been born since smallpox was eradicated have little, if any, immunity to the disease, and people who got the vaccine decades ago are no longer fully protected.
- The U.S. and Russia, in particular (perhaps not coincidentally, the two countries that have possession of the virus), are in favor of keeping the remaining stocks for research. Better vaccines and antiviral drugs, they argue, would be vital to protect people if an outbreak were to occur.
- Smallpox virus stocks from dozens of labs around the world were either destroyed or transferred to the centers in the U.S. and Russia—but it’s possible that a tiny sample of the virus was left behind, intentionally or not. “There are adequate, if not overwhelming, reasons to be concerned” that small stocks of the virus exist outside those two centers, Nils Daulaire, head of the US delegation to the World Health Assembly, told Nature.
- Keeping smallpox for research purposes could also be useful if the virus were recreated in the lab—its genome was sequenced in 1994—or if there were an outbreak of another pox virus.
- “Destroying the virus now is merely a symbolic act that would slow our progress and could even stop it completely, leaving the world vulnerable,” wrote US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in the International Herald Tribune.
The Case for Getting Rid of It:
- The risk of keeping the virus around simply outweighs the benefits, some experts say; even the best-protected killer virus is still a killer virus. As D.A. Henderson, who led the WHO’s smallpox eradication campaign, told the Wall Street Journal, “You just can’t provide 100% security.”
- Third-world nations are less equipped to deal with an outbreak should one occur. Because of this, many researchers and health officials in Asia and Africa advocate for the virus’s destruction.
- Some scientists and public health experts believe that keeping smallpox stores doesn’t serve a worthwhile scientific purpose. “We have done all of the productive research that we can do. It has been discussed fully and thoroughly by people around the world,” Henderson told BBC News. “Now is the time to destroy the virus as a further deterrent to anybody ever again producing it or using it.”
- Others dismiss the idea that terrorists or hostile countries might be experimenting with smallpox. “The nations I would worry about, weird places run by odd dictators, they’re just not capable of doing this stuff,” smallpox expert David Evans told the Washington Post. “If you want to disrupt countries, there are lots of easier ways to do it than to experiment with something so dangerous.”