Should smallpox virus be destroyed?

17 March 2011

smallpox virusAfter the eradication of smallpox in 1980, the World Health Organization called for destruction of known remaining stocks of the virus. The United States and Russia, which hold the known stocks of smallpox virus, have not destroyed their stocks. The WHO met in January 2011 to debate the future of smallpox, and a committee will issue a final recommendation sometime this year. For further information on this topic, there is an editorial in Vaccine entitled “Why not destroy remaining smallpox virus stocks“, and a WHO review on smallpox research.

During TWiV #124, I was surprised to learn that the remaining stocks of smallpox are not just a few tubes of virus, but a substantial strain collection. Here is a transcript of the relevant portion of the podcast, beginning at 1:13:00, where Rich Condit and Grant McFadden discuss the nature of smallpox virus stocks:

Rich Condit: One thing that people don’t fully appreciate is that we are not just talking about one strain of virus, we are talking about a repository of hundreds, at least, strains collected over time, and globally…not all of them have been studied, not all of them have been sequenced. And so there is an incredibly rich repository of information about virus virulence, pathogenesis, evolution, etc, that has not been tapped.

Grant McFadden: Yes, and in fact it’s very hard to tap some of those things right now with our current technologies, and one of the big unknown issues is what will the technologies be like in the future, might some of those things be tappable in the future.

With this information in mind, please take the poll below and register your position on the fate of smallpox virus.

Update: An analyst at the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC alerted me to a commentary by DA Henderson, the architect of smallpox eradication, entitled “Smallpox Virus Destruction and the Implications of a New Vaccine”. According to the analyst, Dr. Henderson “raises a number of the questions that have yet to be considered in the literature, but are absolutely essential to formulating well informed policy, particularly regarding the cost of developing and stockpiling vaccines against smallpox.”

Update 2: The WHO has voted to keep the remaining stocks of smallpox virus. They will revisit the issue in 2014 and in the meantime only permit completion of ongoing studies of the virus. Notice in the article the author writes “a committee of world leaders decided to keep, for now, the world’s two remaining vials of the deadly disease smallpox”. As Rich and Grant discuss above, the remaining stocks comprise hundreds of vials of the virus.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Connor-Bamford/652096932 Connor Bamford

    If the major argument for destruction of these stocks is on safety grounds yet we have the power to produce the entire variola genome de novo, how easy would it be to recreate viable variola virus? And, if so, does this not make the argument for destruction redundant if we have the capabilities to regenerate extinct viruses? How can future societies handle this power? I’m thinking smallpox, rinderpest and possibly polio.

  • Alan Dove

    I had favored destroying them but now favor keeping them. Rich and Grant’s discussion was a real eye-opener, and so was my wife’s reaction when I told her about the discussion. She’s a physician rather than a virologist. I had expected she’d favor destruction because of the risk of accidental (or deliberate) release of one of humanity’s deadliest plagues. Nonetheless, her immediate thought was “Don’t destroy them. You can’t undo that, ever, and there’s no way to know what they might be worth.”

  • Dorian Henderson

    Conner has a good point. Perhaps we could sequence all remaining strains, and virus could be remade in the future if needed. Not sure if the sequences should be widely available in the age of de novo organism synthesis.

  • http://www.scanman.com.au/ ground penetrating radar

    Nonetheless, her immediate thought was “Don’t destroy them. You can’t undo that, ever, and there’s no way to know what they might be worth.Not sure if the sequences should be widely available in the age of de novo organism synthesis.

  • Waverunner

    First of all, who tells us that really all smallpox viruses are destroyed? We will have no proof. Second of all (at least in my eyes) biological warfare will be part of humanity for a very long time. Even if Russia and America sign a treaty to ban it, what will China or some islamic countries do? There are enough people in this wolrd who would spend a lot of money in order to get their hands on very pathogenic viruses. So for me the solution does not lie in destroying smallpox but rather in finding treatment or vaccination for it.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t believe that most people on the survey think that smallpox should be maintained in some way. Don’t you guys know Murphy’s Law? If any virus contamination can occur – it will occur.
    Destroying the last remaining stocks is just the last logical step in the whole worldwide vaccination campaign. Anything less is just risking the whole thing starting all over again.

    If I can switch metaphors a bit, it’s just like the beginning passage from the Lord of the Rings. A huge alliance had beaten Sauron’s mighty armies on the plains of Mordor, and all Isildur had to do was chuck the ring of power into the lava to banish evil from the land forever…… but he didn’t. And we all know what happened a couple of ages later, don’t we?

  • Jspinney

    I think this survey may be slightly bias just for the simple fact that anyone submitting an answer on this website obviously has an interest in viral studies and knows that much can be learned from different stains of a human only virus like smallpox. I think that if this survey was more random or main stream media then you would not have such a large no vote. With that said any knowledge that can be gained from these viruses is knowledge that can be used in the future it would be a waste to destroy the strains. Nature and viruses are always evolving and any edge we have we should use to our advantage, its unfortunate that we even have to worry about something like the smallpox virus, that we could learn so much from,as being used as a biological weapon.

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    You are right in that the poll is flawed because people coming to this
    site have an interest in viruses. I’m not sure that mainstream media
    would be interested in such a poll. But I would be very interested to
    know how a more ‘general’ public feels about this question. Any
    suggestions about how to have the poll seen by a broader audience?

  • MW_biol

    As far as I understand the discussion, the article is about the big stocks the military has for research on bioweapons. And they should be destroyed for safety reasons. I don’t think this should be a complete deletion of smallpox from all labs and researchers. Nevertheless it will be almost impossible to get rid of the virus 100% worldwide. You just can try your best to clear developed and developing countries from it. And even then it is still possible to recreate virus from available sequences for research purposes, without the safety risk of leaking virus.

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    The destruction concerns all the smallpox stocks held by the US and
    Russia – not just those used for military research. And although you
    can reconstruct the virus from sequence, the fact is that the sequence
    is not known for most of the smallpox strains in the collection. For
    that reason it would be useful if we determined the sequence of all
    the strains before destroying them.

  • o /

    Or how the (only ?) best plan elaborated by Russians to rule the world during the Cold War … would be annihilated … it would be a shame !

  • Alan Dove

    I didn’t realize spambots were dumb enough to plagiarize their content from a comment on the same post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dillan-Sanchez/100000620540045 Dillan Sanchez

    I just heard an audio book on smallpox. What I didn’t know astounded me. I didn’t know it IS the worst virus for humans and that compared to HIV, the HIV virus is like a bicycle and the smallpox virus a Cadillac with all the features. There is hardly a comparison and yet i thought HIV was bad.

    I also found out what the virus does to the human body, at least variola major. It melts the inside and outside of your skin from your body, and it makes sure you are completely aware of what is happening and completely feeling the pain and misery. There appears to be no cure after about 11 or 17 days of the virus in your body.

    Smallpox is the worst virus known to man and keeping this thing around is like giving a life sentence to the worst terrorist, murderer and despot on the planet and keeping them in prisons of questionable security.

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  • PandorasBoxorsilverbullet?

    Anyone who thinks the strains should be destroyed is a near sighted fool. Intentionally destroying the last of anything is foolish the possible gains in future research are unfathomable simply because we dont see a need or use for something now does not mean there will be no need or use for it in the future. Imagine a virus is discovered 200 years from now that is creating havoc over the earth with no way to stop it. Then someone stumbles across an “ancient virus” labeled small pox way back in the storage cooler long forgotten that happens to be extremely similar to their current virus crisis. Dont you think studying the small pox virus and the research that came from the elimination of it might be useful? Im sure simple text of previous research would be a good help but having cured samples to work with could put a huge dent in cures for the new problem.

  • Adrian4

    Theres been views of the pox coming back anyways so why not destroy it?

  • Adrian4

    I agree it should be rid of. Theres been views of pox coming back. So why not get  rid of it? If we get it most of us will die because of the spread. Our system isn’t immune to it. It would spread so fast. So I say rid of it man.

  • Jog

    If some other country has it and decides to use it as a biological weapon then we have to be able to create a vaccine again or whatever using the virus. If we don’t have it anymore, then we can’t create the vaccine.

  • Guest

    I’m doing a project on smallpox for a National History Day project (theme:revolution reaction and reform) and from what i have read , i don’t think we should destroy them. i say we take it to a secure bunker somewhere and leave it alone. I’m less than a hundred miles away from the U.S sample and so if it were to escape, my city would be seriously affected. but do not destroy them. we need to keep them for research and maybe we can do some DNA editing so it is harmless. I don’t know cause i don’t do that kind of research.

  • Oli

    The vaccine doesn’t come from the small pox virus itself, it’s pretty much just a weakened strain of cow pox. So keeping the virus won’t help us fight it and, indeed, if there was another outbreak of small pox, or a biological attack by the Russians or whoever you want, all we’d have to do to obtain some more of the virus is find some one with it, and I don’t think that’d be too hard…

  • Karen

    I say yes and no. I’m 13 but the thought of Variola Major striking the world again seems bad, so you might say eradicate it, but just think, if it is not fully eradicated and the wrong person gets ahold of this disease, we have nothing to treat a patient with. No scabs would mean no vaccine, no vaccine, 1000′s of people could lose their lives…

  • Edd

    Of course it should be destroyed, because seeing the deaths and the pain that people had to go through for years whilst Smallpox was an outbreak is horrible, and we don’t want to start that again. There’s no point in complaining “But if we get rid of it, then we might need it in the future and it might be to late!” No, because we won’t NEED it if it’s gone. The only reason we would need it is to destroy it… So what would be the point if we’re not going to destroy it?

  • anthony

    They should destroy them.period

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