Is It Time to Destroy the Last Smallpox Stores?

By Valerie Ross | May 17, 2011 8:13 am

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.”

Image: National Institutes of Health

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I’ll add to the case of getting rid of it, which I would promote:

    – It is a symbolic act – a very positive one. The first disease eradicated, the first natural disaster of kind avoided, no?

    – If there is an outbreak, the vaccine can be recreated further on.

    So we can weigh the moral of risking an outbreak from the known, kept reservoirs and having deaths before early vaccination kicks in against the moral of risking an outbreak from unknown reservoirs and having deaths before (very) late vaccination kicks in.

    The former is much more likely to happen and would be a moral problem to boot. The later would not be such a moral problem.

  • Huy

    Seems to me like there’s financial incentive for the US and Russia to keep their stocks. Simply put, the amount of money that can be made (should an outbreak occur), is enormous if they’re the singular countries with the resources to do so. And the way Secretary Sebelius writes in her op-ed piece, it seems like smallpox will break out any day now. And of course, it seems like there’s ample government money to fund the development said vaccine and drugs. Moreover – the biggest issue with the arguments for keeping stocks of the virus is irrelevant in this day and age – with the sequence online, the virus could be synthesized again (again, according to Sebelius)

  • zadoc

    I don’t think we should, because what if it’s not that last one and then we need it for research after an attack?
    What do you think?

  • Oli

    This is actually quite unfair… We always get told to be careful not to eradicate polar bears and other ‘cute’ animals, but these viruses don’t deserve to live? I mean, I don’t want to give everyone smallpox or something, but it just seems hypocritical to tell people to save one species but eradicate another…

  • Dingo

    Well, if there was a species of animal that had a history of rampaging through countries, killing indiscriminately and in huge numbers, I’m pretty sure we would have killed it all off by now. Additionally, I don’t think viruses are strictly considered “living things’; they’re incapable of most of the criteria for life outside of a host cell.

  • Matt B.

    “if there was a species of animal that had a history of rampaging through countries, killing indiscriminately and in huge numbers, I’m pretty sure we would have killed it all off by now.” Except humans, though we have tried almost continuously to eradicate ourselves.

  • Barry Johnstone.

    I think it should be made extinct solving the percieved problems of finance, security etc.
    The quote of D.A. Hnderson of “You can’t provide 100% security” seems to be the crux of the matter. Gone is gone. While there is an amount left in the world, ‘eradication’ is a B/S!

  • Rob

    If there is an outbreak they’ll have an entirely new stock of the virus to work with so why worry about keeping the old one?

  • badnicolez

    Anyone who says “we’ve done everything we can do” has not studied history.

    Although Rob @#8 has an excellent (and I think the definitive) point on the matter.

  • Mike

    D.A. Henderson said, “We have done all of the productive research that we can do.”

    Oh my, what famous last words. They rank right up there with:

    “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”
    — Popular Mechanics

    “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.”
    — Marechal Ferdinand Foch,

    “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
    — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents

    “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
    — Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University

    “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
    — Lord Kelvin

    “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
    — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles

    “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
    — Western Union internal memo, 1876.

    I’d say keep it. Unless you can predict the future with 100% accuracy, it seems like a prudent move to keep it. As unlikely as it may be, it may turn out to be useful for something someday.

  • dev

    ”Now is the time to destroy the virus as a further deterrent to anybody ever again producing it or using it.”

    Um, if I’m not mistaken, wouldn’t this actually *encourage* someone who had the means to produce the virus (if said entity exists) to go ahead an do so, since not having it around would slow our response time and ability to produce the vaccine? This statement seems particularly silly because it doesn’t bear out at all logically. If you’re the only one to have access to something, that typically puts you at an advantage (which is why the US and Russia want to keep it in the first place, just with different motives).

  • Rabidmob

    It should be destroyed. If a new strain were to pop up in the wild, there is no guarantee that the vaccine created from the currently on hand strain would be effective, much similarly to influenza.

  • Scolopendra

    All poxes are related. Read up on your vaccination history: Salk noticed that people who got cowpox almost never came down with smallpox. Also recall that it’s theorized that smallpox did a number on the non-resistant American Indians. Note that nowadays most humans on the planet also lack resistance.

    It’s better to have a thing and not need it than the other way around, and the concerns about 100% security being impossible can be calmed by basic logic. Assume the stocks are destroyed and then some new pox comes about (improbable, but uncertainly so, given how diseases mutate). Sure, that makes a new strain that can be studied, but it needs to be isolated, sequenced, analyzed, and treatments/vaccines synthesized. Lots of time for the pox to kill people. Because all poxes are more similar than influenzas are, it’s quite probable the smallpox treatments and vaccines are sufficient to combat it, even if it’s only a stopgap measure until the new treatments are researched… but we wouldn’t have that option anymore.

    Now assume that security breaks and someone tries to spread stolen smallpox as a weapon (improbable, and likelihood controlled by security procedures). Since the stocks are still there and we already know how to combat smallpox, the time needed to synthesize treatments and vaccines are minimal. Deaths are thus limited compared to the first scenario.

    Risk management is best done through statistics and failure management, not emotion. In these two unfortunate but clearly distinguishable scenarios, destroying the stocks leads to far more anguish than keeping them. Therefore, they should be kept.

  • Jamie B

    Does destroying the virus also mean destroying our stores of vaccines for it? Many other commenters have implied (Scolopendra, for example, with an otherwise brilliant comment) that if we destroy all of the virus that we know of and an outbreak occurs, we will apparently be defenseless. I’m sure that the CDC and other similar organizations have stockpiles of vaccines, as well as files of all the research ever done on the virus. The “symbolic act” seems to me to be a pretty good one.

  • Sandra

    Hey Jamie B,
    You are very confused about how POX vaccinations work and that’s what’s leading to your erroneous conclusion on the matter.
    You CAN’T destroy the virus and KEEP the vaccine. The vaccine is a derivitive of the VIRUS ITSELF. The body develops an immunity to the virus through EXPOSURE to the virus in micro-form, such as the dose given in a vaccine. The VIRUS and the VACCINE are the VERY SAME THING – just in different forms.
    The stockpiles of vaccines are the very issue they are being criticized for.

  • Fotis

    Two words: “Space Aliens”

    We need to keep it just in case :))

  • ben

    I’m not sure that when they say the governments want to keep their virus stock, they’re referring to their vaccines.

    I’m not sure YOU fully understand how pox vaccines work, but there are two types: the Salk, which is a KILLED vaccine, and the Sabin (which is an ATTENUATED vaccine – its infectious part has been deactivated). Neither is a live vaccine, and I doubt you can make a weapon from the killed vaccine any easier than you could from scratch with knowledge of its genome. I might be wrong though.

    But again, as Rob in comment 8 says, what’s wrong with using new virus stock to produce vaccines? I don’t think it’d take all that long should a new outbreak occur.

  • Melissa

    The smallpox vaccine is not derived from smallpox virus. The vaccine is vaccinia virus which is in the cowpox family. Back in 1796 Dr. Jenner figured out that milkmaids were protected from smallpox and it was because they had already been innoculated with the less harmful cowpox.

    @13. Scolopendra – Salk came up with the polio vaccine not smallpox

  • Person

    I say we destroy one.

    The one in america, too. I can not see Russia sinking as low as to using something like that.

    We should have some for vaccines, but the less, the better.

  • Daniel

    It would be the first time human beings INTENTIONALLY AND WITH FORETHOUGHT made something extinct.

    Is that a presidence we want to set?

  • Heather

    I vote in favor of keeping it. As a biologist, I know that it is almost impossible for us to make an effective vaccine without the actual virus. In the very small chance that someone does get a hold of the virus and uses it for malicious purposes, we will need to real thing to make an effective vaccine. I feel safer knowing that my government has this deadly virus in store, and is capable of making a vaccine. Is there a risk in keeping it? Absolutely. It’s a deadly virus, after all. But there are a lot of worse things out there that we will never eradicate, and not many people lose sleep over it. Nobody gets concerned that the CDC has strains of Ebola in its lab, yet it is more devastating than small pox because our treatments against it don’t always work, and death from Ebola is among one of the more horrible ways to die… keeping small pox in our labs ensures that if it ever does surface in the human population, we can fight it.

  • Chris

    Maybe we shouldn’t let people who have no clue about viral disease prevention, biological warfare, and genetics, like the people responding to this article, make decisions involving those things.

  • Naveed

    Can the US be sure the Russians would actually destroy their stock? Can the Russians be sure the US would actually destroy theirs? I think for this reason both countries will keep their stocks. Cold War tensions seem to still exist and it could be a powerful and devastating weapon if only one country had a stock.

  • Silverhair

    This sort of thing really used to boggle my mind.

    First they claim to have eradicated something.
    Then they pat themselves on the back and get complacent.
    Then it pops up again years later, “New and improved!” (nastier and drug resistant, for those of you who may have missed the sarcasm).

    Have we learned nothing? WE CAN’T “ERADICATE” ANYTHING!
    And I am not referring to the fact that matter cannot be destroyed, I am referring to the fact that whatever it is that they claim to have destroyed always manages to live on somewhere, in some form or another.

    Every time I hear this claim, I always want to reach out, grab them by the scruff of the neck and give them a shake!

    I am going to get down from my soapbox now.
    Thank you.


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