Why We Shouldn’t Completely Destroy Smallpox

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

My grandfather used to keep all sorts of things in the trunk of his car: Fishing gear, duct tape, aluminum foil, a large chain, a defused WWII hand grenade. When we asked why he squirreled away such a random assortment of items, he would shrug and say, “Just in case.”

That, in a nutshell, is why we should never destroy the smallpox virus. Just in case we need it someday.

This month, the World Health Assembly (WHA) will once again debate the future of smallpox virus. Currently, there are two locations with smallpox stockpiles approved by the World Health Organization (WHO). One is located at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the other at the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Russia. Since the 1980s, WHO-approved smallpox research has been conducted in only these two laboratories.

But, that may be coming to an end. According to an op-ed written in PLoS Pathogens, decision makers are leaning toward destroying the stockpiles and ending research.

This is a terrible idea, for at least four reasons.

First, the world would have to trust Russia to destroy all of its smallpox. Russia is, to put it diplomatically, not a trustworthy partner. The former Soviet Union signed a 1972 treaty, called the Biological Weapons Convention, that banned biological weapons. After signing it, the Soviets increased production of those weapons. It wasn’t until 1992, under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, that the program actually came to an end. (Or, so they say.)

Considering that Russia sells weapons to murderous tyrants like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, maintains friendly relations with North Korea, and invades smaller, defenseless neighbors like Ukraine (while simultaneously denying that they are conducting an invasion), the notion that Russia might be lying about biological weapons research is not terribly far-fetched.

Second, the fate of the Soviet biological weapons is unknown. It is entirely possible that weapons, vials of smallpox, or unemployed scientists ended up in places like Iran.

Third, every once in a while, there is a smallpox scare from historical samples. What was thought to be a 135-year-old smallpox scab turned up in a museum in 2011. It ended up not being smallpox (but possibly a related virus known as Vaccinia). Still, the possibility of smallpox viruses surviving in old human tissue samples is a real enough threat. In an e-mail interview with RealClearScience, Dr. Inger Damon, the lead author of the PLoS Pathogens article, wrote, “The virus is highly stable when frozen; periodically the question of viable virus existing in corpses buried in the northern permafrost is posed, but remains unanswered.”

Fourth, as the op-ed authors indicate, there is still much basic research to be done. For instance, it is unknown why smallpox only infects humans. Comparing smallpox to other related viruses will help enhance our understanding of virology. Additionally, further research will improve smallpox diagnostics and vaccines, in the event that something unthinkable occurs.

For these reasons, smallpox stockpiles should not be destroyed for the foreseeable future.

Conservative Seattle radio host David Boze agrees. He even suggested a radical solution: Put smallpox on the endangered species list. Sure, smallpox isn’t as cute as a polar bear, but it’s several times more deadly. Maybe we should keep it around — you know, just in case.

Source: Damon IK, Damaso CR, McFadden G (2014). “Are We There Yet? The Smallpox Research Agenda Using Variola Virus.” PLoS Pathog 10(5): e1004108. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1004108