Should we save smallpox? A conversation with Richard Preston

By Carl Zimmer | May 13, 2011 12:09 pm

Each Friday this month, I’m having a conversation about viruses to mark the publication of my new book A Planet of Viruses. Last week, I talked to virologist Ian Lipkin about the search for new viruses and their potential to alter our behavior. Today, I’m delighted to talk with Richard Preston, the author of the Hot Zone and other books on viruses. He and I discuss the fate of smallpox. The worst viral killer in the history of civilization is now wiped off the face of the Earth, except for some laboratory stocks. Preston and I take on the question of whether we should now annihilate it. Check it out.


Comments (1)

  1. Brian Too

    I say destroy it. This virus is lethal and we need to protect ourselves against accidents and deliberate acts of destruction. Smallpox has been genetically sequenced and it can be studied that way.

    If, in the future, we need to recreate it for some reason, we can do that. However it’s a necessary intermediate step before smallpox would reappear in any form, and as such, it provides a powerful safety buffer.

    Look at it this way. Suppose smallpox gets out and regains a foothold in the human populace. Never mind how it happens, just imagine that it does. What would those future people say about us and how we allowed it to happen? Why did we not act when we had the chance?

    It’s not even like some tiny minority of smallpox infections has some positive outcome. No fraction of smallpox survivors magically gains super powers, or superior intelligence, or some great gain. There is no upside to a smallpox infection. It’s bad all the way around.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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