May 28, 2024

Should last remaining known smallpox virus be destroyed?

Is research more important than public safety?

test tube

Three decades after the threat of smallpox was eliminated, international disputes have resurfaced with greater intensity about whether to destroy the only known specimens of the virus that causes one of humanity’s worst afflictions. Some public health authorities, infectious disease specialists and national security experts say that hundreds of vials of the pathogen held in two high-security government labs in the US and Russia should be incinerated.

But the US and Russian governments continue to postpone the day of reckoning. They say scientists need the living virus, to make a better vaccine and finish developing treatments in case the deadly microbe is released again — by accident, by a bioterrorist or by recreating it from the computerised records of its DNA sequence.

“We still have work to do to protect the
public,” said Ali Khan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which guards one of the caches containing about 450 strains. However, Lim Li Ching, a researcher at Third World Network, a Malaysia-based international research and advocacy group, says “We feel the world would be safer without having these stocks in existence. Why risk it escaping and resurging again?”

Smallpox is caused by the variola virus. Its victims suffer high fevers, intense headaches and body pain, pus-filled ulcers, vomiting and bleeding. It is fatal in about one-third of cases. There is no approved cure. ~
Washington Post, Mar 9

Should last remaining known smallpox virus be destroyed?
Jared Yee
public health