Thursday, May 19, 2011

Should smallpox virus stocks be destroyed?

Smallpox seen through a microscope
(National Geographic Photo Gallery)
The United States Stopped routine immunizations for smallpox in 1972, three years before I was born. I was vaccinated against smallpox in 2001. Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas put out a call for volunteers to test the effectiveness of diluted vaccine—randomly administered at five times dilution, 10 times dilution, and full-strength. I had a long-standing interest in the transmission and spread of viruses. I volunteered.

After the initial screening and disclosures, I was shown to a room where a doctor dipped a two-pronged needle into the vaccine and rapidly jabbed a small circle in the skin of my right shoulder. The pain was no worse than any other immunization, and I have something of a fascination with medical procedures, so I watched and gamely smiled for the press. They applied a transparent semi-permeable dressing—to protect the site and prevent exposure for those around me—and I went back to work.

About six days later, I knew that the diluted vaccine was effective. A large, itchy blister formed at the site of the vaccination. My temperature spiked and I had a persistent headache. I swallowed twoTylenol and went to see the study doctors and nurses. They took very good care of me (there was a number I could call 24/7) until I felt well again. My itchy blister became an itchy scab. I no longer needed the dressings. I went back for occasional follow-up visits for the next two months. My part of the study was done.

This week health ministers from the World Health Organization (WHO) are meeting to decide whether to destroy the final two stocks of the smallpox virus. I have been reading articles on the debate.

·      Destruction of smallpox strains urged (UPI Science News)

For a fascinating and very readable account of the incredible work to eradicate the smallpox virus, I recommend reading The Demon in the Freezer, by Richard Preston. Preston also explains the battle between scientists who want to destroy all known stocks of the virus and those who want to keep them until there is a cure for smallpox.

While destroying the smallpox virus would prevent the possibility of accidental release, only the destruction of legitimate stocks of the virus would be guaranteed. The proposed destruction also means no chance of further research should there be a future epidemic. My own research has taught me the very real inevitability of the latter; the cause will not necessarily be the smallpox virus, it could be any number of others. My book, Crude Awakening, explores an influenza pandemic scenario. Though my scenario is fiction, I based it on research and experience in public health disaster planning and response. Despite this knowledge, I am still undecided. In a perfect world, I would like to see all such threats abolished, but we do not live in a perfect world.

Where do you fall in regard to the debate? Should smallpox virus stocks be destroyed?


  1. This is a tough call, and I'd hate to be the one to make it. Both sides have very valid points. In my mind though, it's better to have some on hand to base research on, just in case. Nobody knows for sure that the recorded stocks are the only ones in existence. As you said, they are the only legitimate stores, which is not the same thing.

    I think accidental release is fairly low on the danger spectrum, there are a lot of things I fear more.

  2. According to David Clark in his book. “Germs, Genes, & Civilization: How Epidemics Shaped Who We Are Today” many human diseases originated in animals. He goes on to say, “Despite the new DNA evidence that exonerates the cow from spreading tuberculosis, most of our present infections probably did originate from other animals. It seems likely that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were relatively free of infectious diseases, compared with historical and present-day man. The unusual susceptibility of American Indians to most diseases brought across the Atlantic from the Old World argues that the indigenous people of the American continent had never been exposed to these diseases. This implies that these diseases emerged after the ancestral American Indians split off from their Asian relatives approximately 15,000 years ago. Because the migrating tribes evidently did not import them into America, it seems that smallpox, measles, and so forth must have been human diseases for less than 15,000 years—perhaps less, even, than that. “
    It’s interesting to learn that smallpox like numerous other diseases most likely originated from animals that were domesticated fairly recently in human history. I know of a laboratory at the University of Texas that helped to reassemble the 1918 influenza virus for study. If laboratories are working hard to reconstruct infectious pathogens for study then why destroy the only stockpile of smallpox with the potential need to reconstruct it later? I say keep it intact and under rigorous security.

    Reference: Clark, David P. (2010). Germs, Genes, & Civilization: How Epidemics Shaped Who We Are Today (pp. 17-18). FT Press. Kindle Edition.

  3. Coral: I agree that accidental release is unlikely, at least into the wider population, and if it did happen there are measures in place to contain it. Malicious release might be more likely.

    Robert: Thank you for the book reference! I will look it up on my Kindle.

    Good point about laboratories having the need, and being able, to reconstruct infectious pathogens. Having studied the 1918 influenza pandemic, the thought of scientists rebuilding the virus is amazing and somewhat scary.

  4. Catching up with my feed backlog and I saw this and it reminded me of your blog post so I thought I'd share it. A letter conversation between a scientist and a sci-fi author. I thought they both had good points.

  5. Thank you for the link, Coral! I enjoyed reading two knowledgeable viewpoints. It's a sad commentary that smallpox continues to be a threat, despite its status as one of only two viruses eliminated from the wild (a monumental achievement). Incidentally, I didn't know about rinderpest until I read Zimmer's comments.

    I'm adding "A Planet of Viruses" to my TBR list and will likely post about it here in future.

  6. You won't be sorry! Zimmer is a fantastic science writer. He makes complex topics very approachable. His Microcosm is one of the best hard science books I read last year. I haven't read that one yet, but it's on my list.

  7. Zimmer is next up, after I finish an indie book.

    Preston does likewise--making complex topics not only approachable but also fascinating, and often horrifying. He has more of a journalistic approach. The Demon in the Freezer is my favorite of his books.