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Smallpox Debate Wages: Destroying Last Samples Not the Best Move

A smallpox debate is waging that could effect our children or our children's children. If not many of us, as well.

A few weeks from now, the World Health Organization (WHO) will determine whether or not it’s time to finally destroy the last known samples of the smallpox virus which are securely held in labs in the United States and Russia. Those in favor of destruction argue that the only way the deadly disease could ever re-emerge would be by the deliberate misuse of the existing virus samples.

But I would maintain the opposite stance. Namely, that the samples have been securely held for quite some time now such that we can rest assured that risk of something horrific happening to them is miniscule. Besides, whatever that tiny risk is, it’s offset by the benefit of having them should the disease ever come back. And if it did just that and we had no control sample to help in our research, I would fear for my children, or perhaps their children.

I formed my opinion after reading an op-ed written by Kathleen Sebelius for the New York Times. And Ms. Sebelius knows of what she speaks. She’s the U.S. secretary for health and human services. In her piece, she points out the following:

At that time [when the disease was declared eradicated in 1980], the WHO called on all nations to destroy their collections of smallpox virus or transfer them to the WHO-sanctioned collections at one of two labs in Russia or the United States. The global public health community assumes that all nations acted in good faith; however, no one has ever attempted to verify or validate compliance with the WHO request.

It is quite possible that undisclosed or forgotten stocks exist. Also, 30 years after the disease was eradicated, the virus’ genomic information is available online and the technology now exists for someone with the right tools and the wrong intentions to create a new smallpox virus in a laboratory. Furthermore, there are additional pox viruses that infect humans, and while they are not likely to produce the same degree of suffering that smallpox historically inflicted, they could still be dangerous.

Sounds scary to me. Again, given that the sample viruses have been held safely in the secure labs in Russia and the United States of over 30 years, now, I’d just as soon see us hang on to them so we can continue our research on the disease, especially in light of these two facts:

  • People under 30 have little or no immunity to the disease. For a large portion of you reading these words, that translates to mean your kids. Or your kids’ kids. Luckily, we do have effective enough vaccines here in the United States to protect “most Americans.”
  • Yet, globally, supplies of the vaccine are limited and many cannot use them for medical reasons.

And given that the disease caused such widespread death (300 million perished of smallpox in the 20th century — a figure which does not even begin to touch the number of people who were permanently scarred and or blinded by the disease.) it seems to me that we cannot afford to stop our research now. As Sebelius points out:

“We have more work to do before these safe and highly effective vaccines and antiviral treatments are fully developed and approved for use. Once they are ready, we intend to share the fruits of this research with the world. Destroying the virus now is merely a symbolic act that would slow our progress and could even stop it completely, leaving the world vulnerable.”

And I don’t know about you, but when it comes to something as serious and deadly as smallpox, I fall into the camp that never, ever wants our children or our children’s children to be exposed. But, heaven forbid, should they be, we need to be as equipped as possible to make sure that what happened in the 20th century doesn’t happen in this one.

And keeping those sample viruses in the secure labs in Russia and the US gives us our best chance to do just that.

Image: Wikipedia

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