Smallpox, or variola, virus has killed more human beings than any other infectious agent. Fortunately, smallpox virus has only one host-humans -- which made it possible to eradicate it. In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) initiated a brilliant campaign that, within 10 years, eradicated smallpox virus from human populations, the last case occurring in Somalia in 1977.

Illustration: John Overmeyer
Soon after, the question arose as to what to do with the smallpox isolates stored in laboratories throughout the world. In 1981, WHO recommended that all isolates be destroyed, with the exception of stocks held at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and at the Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow. WHO also recommended that the genomes of several smallpox virus isolates be cloned into plasmids and sequenced. With that achieved, some scientists and government officials claimed that the smallpox virus stocks in Atlanta and Moscow are superfluous,...

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