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

    by guises (2423402) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @04:05PM (#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 Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @04:47PM (#47510433)

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070702145610.htm

    "In a mass grave in a remote Inuit village near the town of Brevig Mission, a large Inuit woman lay buried under more than six feet of ice and dirt for more than 75 years. The permafrost plus the woman's ample fat stores kept the virus in her lungs so well preserved that when a team of scientists exhumed her body in the late 1990s, they could recover enough viral RNA to sequence the 1918 strain in its entirety. This remarkable good fortune enabled these scientists to open a window onto a past pandemic--and perhaps gain a foothold for preventing a future one."

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

    by idontgno (624372) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @06:50PM (#47511361) Journal

    Ebola is a bacteria

    Whaaaaaa? [wikipedia.org]

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

    by dgatwood (11270) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @11:52PM (#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.

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