Smallpox was eradicated in 1980, but the virus still exists in World Health Organization-controlled depositories. In this weeks British Medical Journal, two experts go head to head over whether these stocks should be destroyed.
The destruction of remaining smallpox virus stocks is an overdue step forward for public health and security that will dramatically reduce the possibility that this scourge will kill again, either by accident or design, argues Edward Hammond of The Sunshine Project, an organization seeking international consensus against biological weapons.
Particularly risky experiments are underway, he says, yet WHO experts have agreed that no valid reason exists to retain smallpox virus stocks for DNA sequencing, diagnostic tests, or vaccine development.
Arguments that smallpox could be used by terrorists or rogue states have also been used to justify retention of virus stocks, yet there is no credible evidence that any terrorist organization has smallpox virus, says
As memory of the horror of smallpox recedes and biotechnology advances, it is important to draw a firm line around smallpox, he writes. Instead of courting disaster, we should seek to ensure that possession of this virus is treated as a crime against humanity.
But John Agwunobi of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services believes that clandestine stocks almost certainly exist and that destroying the virus would be irreversible and short sighted. He disagrees with the view that live smallpox virus is no longer needed for research purposes and insists that further study is essential for global security. He points out that we currently have no effective antiviral drugs for smallpox infection.
The development and licensure of better diagnostics, safe and effective drugs, and safer vaccines against smallpox will take time, he writes. Setting an arbitrary date to complete scientific research is premature and short sighted.
As long as there is a possibility that terrorists could use smallpox to wreak havoc, WHO supervised research must continue so scientists can develop the tools needed to combat an outbreak of smallpox effectively and efficiently, he concludes.
Even if smallpox were to be introduced into the population, the number of cases is unlikely to be large, adds Tom Mack, professor of preventive medicine at the
Source: British Medical Journal