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Medicine Science

Why Are the World's Scientists Continuing To Take Chances With Smallpox? 190

Posted by Soulskill
from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong dept.
Lasrick writes: MIT's Jeanne Guillemin looks at the recent blunders with smallpox and H5N1 at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health to chronicle the fascinating history of smallpox eradication efforts and the attempts (thwarted by Western scientists) to destroy lab collections of the virus in order to make it truly extinct. "In 1986, with no new smallpox cases reported, the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO, resolved to destroy the strain collections and make the virus extinct. But there was resistance to this; American scientists in particular wanted to continue their research." Within a few years, secret biological warfare programs were discovered in Moscow and in Iraq, and a new flurry of defensive research was funded. Nevertheless, Guillemin and others believe that changes in research methods, which no longer require the use of live viruses, mean that stocks of the live smallpox virus can and should finally be destroyed.
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Why Are the World's Scientists Continuing To Take Chances With Smallpox?

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  • The problem is... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lab Rat Jason (2495638) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @02:43PM (#47509971)

    ...you can't possibly guarantee the destruction of every sample. We have lax tracking policies to thank for that. If we voluntarily destroy all our live samples, and some other nation doesn't, then you can bet your next paycheck someone will use that as a weapon against us and we'll be totally powerless to retaliate (or so goes the argument).

    • Re:The problem is... (Score:5, Informative)

      by guises (2423402) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @03:05PM (#47510127)
      That is not the argument. I don't know what the argument is, but it can't be that - it doesn't make any sense. If we voluntarily destroy all our samples, and some other nation doesn't, then there will be that much less smallpox. This is a valuable goal in itself, even if it doesn't mean that the virus has been completely eradicated.

      No one who wasn't literally insane would try to use smallpox as a weapon, the infection would inevitably spread back to the country which initiated it, and the idea that we would need samples of our own to retaliate is preposterous. For one thing, the entire premise of this scenario is that this other country has just given us all the samples that we could possibly want. For another, we still have tons and tons of missiles and bombs just sitting there, looking for a way to justify all of the money that we paid for them.
      • by jbolden (176878)

        I agree that GP's point is silly. Btt we probably would need smallpox and and smallpox research to construct a vaccine against a weaponized smallpox. I remember after 9/11 how scared everyone was about weaponized anthrax, but at least we understood most everything about how anthrax operates.

        • Yes, I was being facetious... giving voice to the people who hang on to this crap for no good reason.

          I'm mostly just astounded by the fact that our government... who knows EVERYTHING... doesn't know where they are keeping their deadly viruses... even if they aren't weaponized.

          But hey... nobody ever accused the US government of being efficient.

          • by oobayly (1056050)

            They don't know everything - they just know whether you prefer Burger King or McDonalds, and that you lied to your friends about how pretty your girlfriend is.

        • by s.petry (762400)

          Except that Smallpox is not a WMD, so "weaponized" smallpox is not a deadly disease if the person who contracted it receives very _basic_ medical treatment.

          As an educated guess, the study into smallpox has been to figure out out why it is so contagious so that we can build our own great contagion. Merge the contagious properties of smallpox with the payload of Ebola and then you have a weapon.

          Sad that we spend so much money learning how to kill each other instead of figuring out how to advance society, but

          • by jbolden (176878)

            Ebola is a bacteria. But AFAIK that's the basic idea, merge genes of different viruses to create better forms of smallpox. That's what the samples are for to be able to create vaccines.

          • by msauve (701917)
            "Except that Smallpox is not a WMD, so "weaponized" smallpox is not a deadly disease "

            Whoosh.

            The most effective weapons don't kill, but make the opponent expend resources which might otherwise be used in the battle.
          • by sFurbo (1361249)

            As an educated guess, the study into smallpox has been to figure out out why it is so contagious so that we can build our own great contagion.

            Or to figure out why it is so contagious, so we can better treat future diseases that uses the same methods. Without more information, it is hard to tell which end goal is more likely.

        • No, we wouldn't need our own live smallpox to construct a vaccine against a weaponized smallpox. The original vaccine was made from cowpox, and eventually the closely related vaccinia disease, and was much safer than smallpox-based inoculation which was the other prevention available at the time.

          The only reason to keep the stuff around is to attack the Russians in case they attack us with their smallpox, and we can be better people than that. Time to destroy it, and convince Putin to destroy his stockpile

      • by fche (36607)

        "If we voluntarily destroy all our samples, and some other nation doesn't, then there will be that much less smallpox. This is a valuable goal in itself,"

        Do you support unilateral disarmament too?

        • by ultranova (717540)

          Do you support unilateral disarmament too?

          Smallpox isn't a weapon. Smallpox is a disease. Should someone be stupid enough to re-introduce it to the world, it will circle back and hit them, too. So the only thing destroying live smallpox samples does is reduce the chances of a catastrophic screw-up.

          • by fche (36607)

            "Smallpox isn't a weapon."

            We're not talking taxonomy, we're talking possible utility.

            "So the only thing destroying live smallpox samples does is reduce the chances of a catastrophic screw-up."

            No, it also reduces the ability of labs to experiment on & learn from the thing.

            • by dgatwood (11270)

              What could possibly be gained from further experimentation at this point? We already know how to isolate it and how to produce vaccines for it. And for gene therapy, there are lots of other, less dangerous viruses that can be used as vectors for delivering genetic material. It seems that keeping anything more than the bare minimum amount of material needed to produce vaccines would fall pretty far towards the risk end of the risk-reward curve.

              • by fche (36607)

                "What could possibly be gained from further experimentation at this point?"

                A rhetorical assertion of a negative is not very convincing.

                • Re:The problem is... (Score:4, Informative)

                  by dgatwood (11270) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @10:52PM (#47513003) Journal

                  In theory, you can always learn more by continuing to study something. In practice, though, modern medicine has a pretty complete knowledge of smallpox. Humans have been studying the disease since before anyone even knew what a virus was. There's evidence that the Chinese were inoculating people for smallpox over a thousand years ago. And the first practical, widespread form of that vaccine dates back to the late 1700s. This was literally the very first virus ever treated with a vaccine. It's well-trodden ground, research-wise.

                  The problem is, this virus is highly contagious and relatively dangerous compared with other viruses. For variola major, the case fatality rate is typically 30–60%, which puts it among the worst communicable diseases out there, approaching the fatality rate of ebola, and far more contagious. With nearly a two-week average incubation period (and up to 17 days in the worst case), one minor screw-up could easily cause a very serious pandemic before enough vaccines could be produced and distributed.

                  So basically, you have to weigh the odds of an accidental release (which, with recent revelations about this stuff getting lost for decades, then turning up by accident, seems not so improbable) against the relatively small chance of learning anything new from it that can't also be learned from cowpox or other similar viruses. On the risk-reward curve, this seems to be so far towards the "pure risk" end that any reward would border on undeniable proof of divine intervention, which means the speculated rewards would have to be pretty darn amazing for it to be worth the risk.

      • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @03:38PM (#47510377)

        No one who wasn't literally insane would try to use smallpox as a weapon, the infection would inevitably spread back to the country which initiated it, and the idea that we would need samples of our own to retaliate is preposterous.

        Yes, the point is that it's like MAD and other weapons policies: you don't want to put down your gun (or shield, for that matter) while the other guy is still holding on to his. Despite what many people say, that is completely sane and rational behavior.

        The thing OP kind of sidesteps is that while Western countries countries resisted complete eradication, they did so openly. Only later it was discovered that other countries (most of which were supposedly in favor of the eradication program) kept their own samples and research anyway. Which is a perfect illustration of why the West wanted to hang on to theirs, too.

        It's easy enough to call such policies insane, but nobody wants to be the only "sane" person in the room while all the nutjobs still have their weapons. That kind of disproves it would a sane approach, yes?

        • by guises (2423402)
          The point that I was trying to make is that comparing smallpox to a gun, or even a nuclear weapon, isn't accurate. Using smallpox as a weapon is MAD even if you're the only one using it. The purpose of pointing a gun at another armed person is the idea that if you shoot him first, and do it thoroughly enough, he then won't be able to shoot you. That is not the case with smallpox.

          Having live samples available is also not needed or useful for producing the vaccine. The only argument that I've heard in favo
          • by Grog6 (85859)

            Large numbers of people in the US were vaccinated for smallpox in the 60's; pretty much everyone over 50 or so.

            Not so now or anywhere else, either. :)

          • The point that I was trying to make is that comparing smallpox to a gun, or even a nuclear weapon, isn't accurate. Using smallpox as a weapon is MAD even if you're the only one using it.

            I understood your point. I was making a different one.

            Repeat: you don't want to be the only sane person in a room full of nutjobs with insane weapons. That would also be insane.

            Having live samples available is also not needed or useful for producing the vaccine.

            I disagree completely. You can't test immunity if you don't have something to be immune against. Generally speaking, dead-virus vaccines tend to be less effective than live-virus vaccines, and you can't create more dead virus unless you have live virus to make it from.

            Research doesn't take place in a vacuum. But before you jump

            • by MrL0G1C (867445)

              Smallpox is not a MAD weapon like nuclear weapons, that analogy does not work.

              Someone launches smallpox at you, what are you going to do, launch some kind of herpes at them?

              Also, US has thousands of nuclear weapons, so the MAD argument again doesn't work because the US have far superior weapon at their disposal.

            • Smallpox vaccine is over *200 year old* tech at this point. I think with over 2 centuries of data, we know it works and it is NOT made out of smallpox anyway. Want to DIY it? Go find a cow with cowpox and rub it until you get cowpox. You are now immune to smallpox!
        • by Solandri (704621)

          Yes, the point is that it's like MAD and other weapons policies: you don't want to put down your gun (or shield, for that matter) while the other guy is still holding on to his.

          MAD doesn't work for self-replicating things like bioweapons. If you put your gun or nuke down, and the other guy still has his and decides to shoot at you, you're screwed.

          OTOH, if you destroy your smallpox virus samples, and the other guy still has his and decides to use it on you, well he's just given you a smallpox sample you

        • by MrL0G1C (867445)

          You seem to have completely ignored the post you replied to, it's not like MAD because MAD stands for Mutually Assured Destruction. Smallpox is not MAD it is MAILS (Mutually Assured Itchy Little Spots) and as such is a stupid crap weapon. Smallpox inoculation was used by the Chinese over 400 years ago.

          As the parent mentioned, you don't need to keep stock because if your enemy has lost their marbles and launched itchy at you then you have a sample of it. And if you'd read the summary you'd know that you don'

      • No one who wasn't literally insane would try to use smallpox as a weapon, the infection would inevitably spread back to the country which initiated it

        Yes, because there aren't any insane people around who carry a grudge against us.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        It depends. Smallpox is not the best example, but the ideal virus to use as a biological weapon is a virus with long, mostly asymptomatic infectious phase and a high mortality rate. A virus with those characteristics could infect a large portion of the population before detection and basically wipe it out before effective measures can be taken (typically the first to fall to the infection are the first responders, nurses and MDs and chances are that by the time of the risk is apparent you won't have any eff

        • by sFurbo (1361249)

          [...] the ideal virus to use as a biological weapon is a virus with long, mostly asymptomatic infectious phase and a high mortality rate.

          No, the ideal biological weapon does not spread from person to person. Any disease that does is guaranteed to infect your own population as well; it is basically a gun you can't aim, or a doomsday device (though not literally, it doesn't kill everybody).

      • No one who wasn't literally insane would try to use smallpox as a weapon

        There's no shortage of people who are literally insane in politics. Consider what happens if the "Caliphate" gets their hands on some samples.

        • by bmo (77928)

          There's no shortage of people who are literally insane in politics.

          Indeed. 1 out of 4 people has a diagnosable mental illness.

          An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older â" about one in four adults â" suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 2004 U.S. Census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, this figure translates to 57.7 million people.

          --NIMH

          Consider what happens if the "Caliphate" gets their hands on some samples.

          You mean

          • You mean the theocrats that are always talking about bringing the US back to its "christian" roots?

            These guys don't need smallpox, because they're doing just fine with plain old JDAMs and Tomahawks.

            OTOH, when you're equally insane but don't have billions of dollars to piss off on making things go boom, you might start considering extreme but cheap options.

    • Re:The problem is... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by structural_biologist (1122693) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @03:33PM (#47510325)
      We have had the ability for quite some time to synthesize viruses from scratch (the first report in the scientific literature came from the laboratory of poliovirus from scratch, published in 2002 [sciencemag.org]). So, there is no reason to keep smallpox stocks around because we can just synthesize the virus if we need it. While this technology means that anyone with sufficient resources could download the (publically available smallpox genome [nih.gov], and synthesize it, the same technology also enables scientists to more rapidly generate vaccines [sciencemag.org] without having to start with a physical sample of the virus.
      • But as it can be synthesised, that refutes the argument that "if we destroyed it, it would be gone forever"

        • But as it can be synthesised, that refutes the argument that "if we destroyed it, it would be gone forever"

          Yes. While destroying existing stocks would not eradicate the virus forever, it would still help minimize the risks of accidental releases.

    • by bloodhawk (813939)

      did you not even read the summary let alone the article? we don't need LIVE small pox virus anymore to produce vaccines or perform research. Should someone use it as a weapon then obviously we would have an abundant supply of the live virus anyway.

  • by rossdee (243626) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @02:44PM (#47509975)

    We should give some lifeform a break

    • by Dins (2538550)
      Sure, but couldn't we stick with ones like cute puppies, fluffy kittens, or bald eagles if we're handing out breaks? I mean, if we HAVE to "accidentally" let a lifeform go extinct, smallpox has my vote!
  • by Gothmolly (148874) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @02:48PM (#47510003)

    Short answer, smallpox control has never really been that good. Also an answer - each government wants to keep the only supply as a potential weapon.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Potential defenses. It would be a stupid, horrible, and backfire in a lot of ways for a government to use it as a weapon. SOmething government have known since WWI
      Globally based theologically motivate nut jobs on the other hand, they won't care cause..'god'.

  • by Man On Pink Corner (1089867) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @02:50PM (#47510021)

    "Why are scientists continuing to take chances with uranium?"
    "Why are scientists continuing to take chances with high voltage?"
    "Why are scientists continuing to take chances with dimethyl mercury?"

    Because science.

    Also, there's no reason to obsess over the presence of a few virus particles in a jar on a shelf somewhere, if we have the source code in the form of its gene sequence. In that case we'll be able to resynthesize the virus at our leisure, at some point in the not-too-distant future.

    And if we don't already have the gene sequence in hand, well, that's a problem in itself.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Well, we wold need the virus for experimentation.
      Of course if we can do it at leisure, then so can everyone else.

    • by Triklyn (2455072)

      i'd say yes, but i'd hesitate still.

      epigenetic mechanisms are still being explored, and non-nucleotide based heredity like matrilineal passing of mitochondria. Remaking a virus from it's sequence seems like it should be really easy, and if there's any organism/automata that will be made first, it'll be a virus... but even still, there might be some transient quality that is... stored in ram and not in persistent memory that once lost is truly lost.

    • by mrchaotica (681592) * on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @03:17PM (#47510187)

      And if we don't already have the gene sequence in hand, well, that's a problem in itself.

      What do you think the odds are that you could download the smallpox genome off The Pirate Bay or some TOR site?

    • A more interesting question is, what are these scientists studying about the virus, and what are they learning?
  • Benefits (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    They take chances with it because the benefits outweighs the risks.
    How about we focus on those things that actually gets people hurt, like banksters taking chances with the economy and politicians using the army to play chicken-race. You know, the stuff that actually gets innocent people killed.

    In the case of smallpox what would happen is that the scientist screwing up might get infected and placed in quarantine. Even in the case of an actual smallpox outbreak it can be contained again with proper vaccinati

    • "They take chances with it because the benefits outweighs the risks." A supposition on your part. No more, no less.
  • It's an inferior move to reduce your options and throw away something irreversibly. You don't delete documents when you have abundant storage, you don't discard items in a video game with endless inventory.

    I'll accept that having poorly tracked, poorly secured, poorly vetted, poorly restricted, and/or poorly located samples keeps them from being a benign non-factor as above.

    I don't accept that throwing them away (the ones we know about) is the only counter. Hell, we can spare a few grams of payload an
    • by kbeech (660054)
      Have Buckaroo Bonzai drop it off in the Eighth Dimension to keep Doctor Lizardo busy!
    • by jeffmeden (135043)

      I don't accept that throwing them away (the ones we know about) is the only counter. Hell, we can spare a few grams of payload and put one in space.

      And wind up with *super*smallpox? Good fucking plan, Einstein!

      Actually, good fucking plan. Let's do it.

  • by Doubting Sapien (2448658) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @03:12PM (#47510157)
    Laboratory samples are not necessarily the only sources of still viable small pox virus. With climate change now a global reality, thawing of the arctic permafrost means that the remains of victims who died of smallpox before eradication, even if buried (but especially if not), can potentially still release the disease into the current population. There was some news a while ago when the the Spanish Flu of 1918 was recovered in this way, albeit intentionally in the interest of science. But who knows if/when nature should take it's course this way with small pox, without our help?
  • How problematic is a 60yr old vial of likely dead virus anyway?

    According to the agency, the virus was freeze dried and sealed in melted glass and the samples have been in storage since the 1950s.

    And they were sealed in melted glass? Come on...
    Sounds like a BS "Panic! Your life is in danger!" story to distract us from the worlds real problems.

  • Honestly, what a fantastic way of completely screwing your enemy. smallpox bombs are a fantastic weapon that will make the people turn on their local government and military as soon as their children start dying.

    Biological and Chemical warfare is worse than nuclear warfare, and it's heinous to it's core.

  • Sounds like a script from a movie...

    Earth 2110 A mutated smallpox pandemic is sweeping the world.
    Researchers desperately need an original sample from which to make an vaccine.
    Man foolishly destroyed all samples back in the dark years of 2014.
    Now a ragtag group of adventurers attempt to find the last remaining sample, the world depends on it!

  • by Karmashock (2415832) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @03:42PM (#47510395)

    I'd avoid weaponizing it. I think the science labs that weaponize viruses on the argument that they need to know how to counter weaponized viruses is a little bunk. But I do think the viruses should be kept on file. Keep them in deep dark vaults... but keep them. I don't know if we'll ever need them for some reason but if we do they're there.

    As to the worry that scientists might misuse them. I didn't say I'd let the scientists play with them. Just keep them. Seal them away somewhere and require a public hearing to release them to any lab.

    Possibly include a 24 hour armed guard to accompany the virus if its released to a lab. The expense of such a guard should discourage casual research.

  • "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not."

    If you want to know that you can protect against/treat smallpox virus, even if mutated (un)naturally, you have to have some with which to work.

    The question is fundamentally nonsense.

  • . . . . then only outlaws will have (repeat item here).
  • What if it turns out that the disease that killed all the Martians when they attacked back in 1938 was smallpox, and what if that was the ONLY disease they were susceptible to?
    Wouldn't we feel like dummies if we destroyed all our
    supplies and they attacked again?

  • For those who don't already know, the smallpox vaccine is the not made from smallpox.
    It was originally made from a virus commonly known as "cowpox", although they may have used the horse version for development.

    smallpox virus is "variola"
    the vaccinating (cowpox) virus is "vaccinia"

    The point is, we don't need smallpox to make more vaccine and would not do that anyway.

    The CDC has enough vaccine to vaccinate everyone in the USA for smallpox, should it come to that.

    • by Grog6 (85859)

      As I mentioned above, almost everyone over 50 in the US was vaccinated in the 60's.

      We lined up in school, lol.

      I still have my scar. :)

  • by SumDog (466607)

    This just makes me think of the Alien's movie, where The Company(tm) wants to harvest, study and learn from the Xenomorphs, even after being fully aware at how horribly dangerous they were.

  • All the tin-pot dictators wanted it...
  • It is stupid to think destroying lab stocks removes the 'problem'.

    The 'problem' is not these stocks but undiscovered natural reservoirs of diseases.

    Destroying the stock reduces capability of the biomedical community to respond to fresh out breaks.

  • Is making any species extinct a good idea? If so, why?

    I mean, if it had been destroyed in '86, we'd never have sequenced it. What more info can we get from it 10 or 20 years from now?

    Also, this whole "debacle" is massively overblown. Note that a) the amules were all still securely sealed, and in appropriate storage... it's just that they should have been known, and put in recorded storage.

    For that matter, where's whatever you were looking for at home? Or when was the last time your boss asked you to find so

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