Time to Destroy Remaining Smallpox Virus?

A researcher urges the World Health Organization to destroy the last stockpiles of smallpox virus.

Rina Shaikh-Lesko
May 20, 2014

CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION, PUBLIC HEALTH IMAGE LIBRARYEarlier this month (May 1), a group of researchers published an essay urging the World Health Organization (WHO) to not to destroy the last batches of smallpox virus because research into the deadly virus remains to be done. But in an opinion published this week (May 19) in New Scientist, Gareth Williams, a medical doctor who has written about smallpox, suggested the opposite, noting that the virus is no longer necessary for research purposes and could pose a significant threat were it to escape the confines of the lab.

“The intact virus is pretty redundant as a research tool: the genomes of many strains have been thoroughly sequenced and key proteins required by the functioning virus can be made in the lab,” Williams wrote. “Over the last 30 years, the stocks of virus have contributed little to scientific understanding.”...

He also catalogued the way that the smallpox virus has been used as a weapon, particularly in Cold War-era Soviet Union. The United States and Russia maintain the last two known stockpiles of the virus.

“The Variola virus is a genie which must not be allowed to escape from its bottle into the world again,” Williams wrote. He acknowledged that the risk of the variola virus escaping is small, but added “that risk will never be zero while stocks remain. Destruction removes that risk and might allow the WHO to focus on what we will really need if smallpox ever comes back.”