Should smallpox virus be destroyed?

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.