May 13, 2014 I Tom Head

Should We Keep Smallpox Alive?

Next Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) will decide whether or not to destroy the last remaining samples of the variola virus that causes smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases in human history. If they decide to destroy the samples, the consequences may be terrible. If they decide not to destroy the samples, the consequences may be terrible.

TED-Ed tells the story of how we fought—and ultimately defeated—smallpox:

As far as we know, the smallpox virus only exists in two WHO-controlled laboratories—one in the United States, and one in Russia. Both nations have expressed a reluctance to destroy the remaining samples. And the arguments against destroying it are fairly strong: the vaccines scientists have created to combat it can be improved, either laboratory may claim to destroy its samples while actually hiding them elsewhere, and so forth. And as we saw with pithovirus siberium, it's very plausible that live smallpox virus samples still exist elsewhere anyway—frozen, perhaps, in the graves of some of its victims. (There is already some evidence to suggest that the virus may be able to survive indefinitely in a frozen state.) And if the virus ever escapes, it could easily kill millions; having live samples, on which to test possible treatments, may save time and countless lives.

But what if these really are the only live samples of the smallpox virus in the world, and we really can guarantee their eradication? We would be able to make certain that these samples are never weaponized or otherwise spread. Our decision to destroy these viruses would be an act of biological disarmament, comparable (perhaps on an even larger human scale) to the dismantling of nuclear warheads.

No matter which decision researchers make, they will have doubts—and they will have to live with the possibility that their decision may come with an immeasurably high human cost. I don't envy their decision, and I'm not inclined to second-guess it—not when the stakes are so high, and the certainties so few.

Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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