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Smallpox is only alive in two labs. Should we destroy it?

A transmission electron micrograph of smallpox virus particles (virions)
A transmission electron micrograph of smallpox virus particles (virions)
UIG via Getty Images

Should we destroy the last living samples of smallpox? The World Health Organization will decide this month. Some major microbiologists are arguing that we should keep them to help develop smallpox treatments and that we should discuss possible new experiments with live smallpox to better understand it, in general.

The reasons to destroy the virus seem fairly obvious. After all, smallpox killed 300 million people in the 20th century. And despite all the best precautions, there's a slight risk that it could escape. (Or that a worker could steal some.)

Smallpox is still the only human disease that's ever been eradicated through an intentional campaign. Ever since the WHO declared the disease officially eradicated in 1980, people have been arguing about whether to destroy all of the samples for good. There are only two official locations with live smallpox samples: one in the US and one in Russia.

(I'm sparing you the photo of what smallpox looks like. If you really want to see it, click here. Just don't tell me that I didn't warn you.)

For the time being, the WHO is letting researchers keep smallpox in order to produce antiviral drugs, diagnostic tests, and safer vaccines that could be used in the event of a future outbreak. Expert opinions vary on whether these efforts are far enough along to justify destroying all of the virus.

The authors of the recent essay argue that the research is not yet finished. (For example, drugs are only in phase two of three-phase clinical trials.)

They also mention something that I hadn't before considered: drug-resistant smallpox. "While the likelihood of the emergence of, or creation of, either drug- or vaccine-resistant versions of smallpox is unknown," they say, "continued investigation to identify additional countermeasures, for example, through screening using functional genomics or proteomics approaches, can further enhance our state of preparedness."

Basically, if you don't know how likely smallpox is to become resistant to your vaccine, then you don't really know how many versions of a vaccine you need.

And where could a new smallpox threat come from?

  • Bioterrorism from some unofficial test tube of smallpox that someone might have hidden away decades ago
  • Bioterrorism using currently available DNA sequence information to create a deadly smallpox-like virus
  • Smallpox from the grave. (No one knows how long smallpox can survive in a dead body, according to this Smithsonian article.)
  • New diseases. They're always popping up, often after making the leap from some other animal to us, like a new smallpox cousin that appeared last week. Although that particular one doesn't seem especially problematic so far, you never know when one might. Some of the reasons to study smallpox are actually to understand deadly diseases in general. Smallpox itself is particularly interesting because, unlike other viruses in its family, it only infects humans (and not any other animals). This unique quality is something worth studying, according to the authors of the essay.

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