Smallpox killed between 300–500 million people during the 20th century. As recently as 1967, 15 million people were infected and 2 million died from smallpox. Amazingly however, a massive, global vaccine-based effort to eradicate the disease was declared a complete success in 1979. That feat stands among the greatest achievements in the history of medicine. In fact to this day, smallpox remains the only human disease to have been completely eliminated from the face of the earth.
End of story, right?
Well, not exactly. Today, officials believe that the only samples of the virus in existence are stored in refrigerators at the CDC and in a Russian government lab in Siberia. At these tightly guarded facilities, scientists use the specimens to develop treatments which would be used in the event that very bad people somehow found a way to release the virus into a world containing billions of unvaccinated people.
For this to happen, bioterrorists would have to secure unsanctioned samples of the virus (none of which are known to exist), steal it from the above-mentioned facilities, or genetically engineer it (a task believed to be extremely difficult using current technology, since the virus’ genome is long and complex). It’s also possible that the above-mentioned facilities could release the virus accidentally.
The probability that any of these events will happen is exceedingly small, so public officials have debated for decades whether the known, remaining samples of smallpox virus should be destroyed.
The debate now appears headed for a resolution. Representatives of 34 countries including the US and Russia are meeting to decide the matter. The group will make recommendations to a governing body, the World Health Assembly, in March. The Assembly plans to decide the matter in May.
US and Russian officials believe the sanctioned samples should not be destroyed. They say that despite the ongoing research, scientists have yet to develop effective treatments for people who have been exposed to smallpox virus. They also argue that the virus’ unique ability to elude the human immune system constitutes an important learning opportunity. Ongoing study of the way smallpox does it could drive development of drugs that could treat many conditions in addition to smallpox.
Many developing nations, who were the ones most recently affected by the virus, will likely oppose the US position. A paper that makes the scientific case for destroying all sanctioned stocks of the virus appears here. There are also political overtones to the debate, which are eerily similar to those which plague international efforts to stem global warming and nuclear proliferation.
“It is the same logic by which the superpowers continue the possession of the nuclear weapons,” explained Indian virologist Kalyan Banerjee to the Wall Street Journal. “They wish to hold on to the smallpox virus as a super bio-weapon.”
By the way, the US government has stockpiled more than 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine, enough to inoculate every citizen in the country. Few other countries can afford to have done that. I say keep the stocks, because I don’t know what I don’t know about the chance some bad person has a smallpox cache somewhere. I’d rather protect against the catastrophic downside risk of such an event, and review existing safeguards for the known samples. Stay tuned.