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Medicine Science

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

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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  • by Man On Pink Corner ( 1089867 ) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @03:50PM (#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 Doubting Sapien ( 2448658 ) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @04:12PM (#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?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @04:30PM (#47510307)

    Smallpox is a terrible disease for sure, but is not a good candidate for biological warfare. The reason why scientists keep it alive has nothing to do with war for a change; they keep it alive because if was a very successful virus and understanding the reasons of said success may be beneficial in the future.

    Sure, we can play safe and kill it based on flawed emotional responses but first, there is no guarantee that destroying the known samples will kill every existing reservoir, second: not having a sample will produce a slower response (and more dead and maimed children) if a variant of the virus emerges from somewhere else and finally we are discarding any positive application of the virus (like using a harmless mutation to carry a payload targeting cancer cells or similar)

    Also, notice that even if the virus as it is somehow escapes or is intentionally released, it is relatively easy to detect and cure.

    All in all, the benefits of keeping it alive for future research overweights the risks... the worst case scenario is a weaponized smallpox intentionally released in a civil population, but even in that case you WANT to have it somewhere to speed the development of a vaccine.

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

    by structural_biologist ( 1122693 ) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @04:33PM (#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 []). 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 [], and synthesize it, the same technology also enables scientists to more rapidly generate vaccines [] without having to start with a physical sample of the virus.
  • Re:The problem is... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 22, 2014 @05:07PM (#47510571)

    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 effective personnel to deal with it)

    Also, a weaponized virus is not necessarily invulnerable to treatment (that would make it too dangerous to handle), to be effective as a weapon is more than enough to require some sort of unusual treatment; if it manages to infect a large portion of the population before detection, the existing inventories of the treatment won't be enough to deal with it and by the time the logistics for production and distribution of the treatment are in place, the population will be most likely decimated.

    Finally, there are people insane enough to invest time and money to develop biological weapons, the US government being the primary offender to date (google is your friend). A virus like in the scenario I describe is a "coward's weapon" to be used once on an unsuspecting population, not something you put in a warhead and launch in a war zone. For starters, is not meant to target enemy combatants, but an entire population, so using it is both a war crime and a crime against humanity and no nation would want to risk getting caught using it in the open. Thats why the most likely scenario is the use of intelligence services to start the epidemic by infecting a few unsuspecting civilians in an hostile nation (thats highly unlikely to leave any traces about the origin of the disease)

    Sadly, if history serves as evidence, said methods are not beyond what our dear politicians are capable of.

"An open mind has but one disadvantage: it collects dirt." -- a saying at RPI