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A transmission electron microscopic image of a tissue section containing variola virus particles, the pathogen responsible for causing smallpox in humans
A transmission electron microscopic image of a tissue section containing variola virus particles, the pathogen responsible for causing smallpox in humans

Opinion: Destroy All Samples of the Smallpox Virus

With a global alarm ringing because of an unprecedented outbreak of monkeypox, we should also consider a different but closely related viral threat.

Gigi Gronvall

Gigi Gronvall is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is an immunologist by training.

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and
Tara Kirk Sell

Tara Kirk Sell is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her work focuses on improving public health policy and practice in order to reduce the health impacts of disasters and terrorism.

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ABOVE: A tissue section containing variola virus particles. The core, a dumbbell-shaped structure, contains the viral DNA. CDC/Fred Murphy; Sylvia Whitfield

In its war on Ukraine, Russia spread false rumors about covert bioweapons laboratories—a claim that was met by rapid and emphatic responses from the international community. Now, it is spreading disinformation that the international monkeypox outbreak stems from those laboratories. Without lending credence to either rumor, these attempts to vilify Ukraine provide an opportunity to evaluate how our continued possession of smallpox samples makes us vulnerable to disinformation campaigns that could cause harm to the US and its allies. The United States maintains live samples of the smallpox virus in Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These samples are secure and inaccessible, but holding onto them is still harmful to our national security.  

Smallpox disease had been a scourge since ancient times, passing from one person to another at least as far back as when pharaohs ruled Egypt. Caused by the variola virus, the disease was fatal to 30 percent of those who contracted it, and survivors were often left disfigured and scarred. Thanks to a successful vaccine that was effective even several days after exposure, the virus has not been seen in the US since the 1940s, and was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1980. 

Thanks to a Cold War-era division of responsibility, smallpox has been held in just two places in the world since 1984: at the CDC labs in Atlanta, and at Vector, a Russian government laboratory near Novosibirsk in Siberia. All research involving the virus samples requires approval from a special World Health Organization committee of experts.  

The World Health Assembly, the governing body of WHO, originally scheduled smallpox for destruction in 1993, but it has been given multiple reprieves for more research amidst continued calls for its destruction.  

There is no strategic, security, or scientific value to keeping the samples left over from the global smallpox eradication effort, and destroying the samples would fulfill a commitment the US made when undertaking eradication.  

As with all viral disinformation campaigns, the truth is often the best inoculation.

The continued existence of variola virus samples leave open the possibility, however remote, that it could be used in a biological attack. Destroying the remaining smallpox samples is an opportunity for the US government to demonstrate leadership: use of biological weapons is an abhorrent form of warfare; it is against international law; and destroying the samples would demonstrate that the US has not and will not violate the Biological Weapons and Toxins Convention (BWC).  

No further research is needed on the samples, given that there are multiple vaccines to prevent smallpox disease, with enough doses stockpiled for everyone living in the US; updated vaccines that have fewer side effects; effective drugs to treat the disease; and diagnostic tests to identify it.  

Samples of smallpox virus are not needed for the production or further development of new vaccines or drugs because animal model poxviruses are used instead. If smallpox were to be genetically modified and used as a weapon that rendered existing vaccines and therapeutics ineffective, scientists would need samples of the modified virus to develop a new vaccine and therapeutics—the legacy smallpox samples would be scientifically useless. Similarly, these smallpox samples have no relevance to any research on the current monkeypox outbreak. 

Furthermore, holding onto stocks of smallpox doesn’t work as a deterrent. Through the Biological Weapons Convention, countries have agreed “never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain” biological weapons. If smallpox were to be used as a biological weapon by Russia or another country, the US would not respond in kind. Beyond the moral and legal standards the US is bound to, the use of a weapon with such wide ranging and indiscriminate impacts is strategically unsound.  

Since 1975, the international community has declared biological weapons to be off-limits. Destroying the US’s samples not only honors the international calls to do so, it demonstrates further resolve that the samples serve no strategic purpose and reduces the potential to use them in disinformation campaigns against the US. 

The most successful disinformation campaigns start with a kernel of truth that is then twisted and twisted to fit a narrative that benefits the perpetrator. By keeping samples of smallpox, the US has made itself vulnerable to such distortions. It is an ongoing concern that Russia will create a false flag operation in which it will “find” smallpox in Ukraine and claim that the US gave those samples to the country, justifying further escalations in brutality toward the Ukrainian people and possibly others. Certainly, there would be Russian efforts to cast doubt on whether the CDC samples were actually destroyed, but as with all viral disinformation campaigns, the truth is often the best inoculation.

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