May 16th, 2011
04:31 PM ET

Should the world's last smallpox virus be destroyed?

Health officials from 193 countries are gathering in Geneva, Switzerland, this week for the World Health Organization's annual meeting to discuss  myriad health threats of today.  Among the many topics on the agenda is the question – when should the last remaining samples of Variola, the virus that causes smallpox,  be destroyed?

The decision to destroy the known remaining virus samples was made back in 1996. But the actual destruction date has been delayed four times – most recently in 2007. So these samples of the virus – 451 at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States and about 120 stored in a lab called "Vector" in a remote Siberian town in Russia - continue to hibernate in liquid nitrogen.

Smallpox has been described as the world's worst diseases.  It infected only humans and 30% of those sickened died.  Many who survived were horribly scarred or  became blind or both. Up to half a billion people died from the disease just in 20th century alone.

Dr. D.A. Henderson, who was in charge of the WHO's global smallpox eradication program, saw firsthand what this virus could do.  "Probably the worst experiences I've ever had were going into smallpox wards. I've never seen anything so pitiful in all my life. It has the odor of dying flesh, nasty odor," he said.  "You have these people who are pathetic – they just want water, but they can't drink; they want food but you can't provide it to them. There's nothing you can do for them – nothing at all."

The WHO's massive vaccination program was a success and led to the eradication of smallpox in 1980. The last naturally occurring case was in 1977, and the final cased occurred  in 1978, when a laboratory accident led to the exposure and the death of one person from the disease, explains Dr. Inger Damon, chief of the Poxvirus and Rabies Branch at the CDC. Damon is one of a handful of people at the CDC who has access to virus, which is kept under the most extreme safety and security measures.

She says that although multiple research labs across the world once had the virus, the WHO worked to consolidate the locations and by 1984 only the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia) remained.   More could still be learned from this incredibly deadly virus, so it wasn't until 1990, that the WHO decided the smallpox virus should be destroyed, explains Jonathan Tucker, author of "The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox."

The deadline was set for the end of 1993. Tucker describes how a Soviet defector suggested that his country as well as others may have hidden stocks of smallpox and that it could be used for bioterrorism.

While experts agree smallpox would not be an effective bioweapon because once you unleash it, you can't just target a specific population, the more likely scenario for a new outbreak would be a release by someone with an undeclared stash. The WHO inspects the two known stockpiles.

There's always the chance that someone could bioengineer a smallpox virus because modern technology has allowed for the genetic sequencing of the virus' DNA. But finding someone who could do it  would be very difficult, as would actually doing it, Damon says.

Damon believes that  more work needs to be done on the actual virus and that now is not yet the time to destroy the stockpiles. She says new drugs or vaccines need to be tested on the  virus to determine whether they work, since this is not the type of experimentation that can be done on humans.

If there were an outbreak of smallpox, which everyone appears to agree is unlikely but cannot be ruled out, it would pose a major threat.  "We estimate that 75% of the population is fully susceptible to smallpox," says Henderson.  WHO recommended against vaccination when the disease was declared eradicated in 1980. Even those who were vaccinated 30 years ago would have little immunity remaining.

However, Henderson and other advocates for destroying the stockpiles believe that since two new vaccines have now been developed and development of two new antiviral drugs is almost complete, it's time to let go of these stockpiles.

Russia and the United States disagree.  Some are suggesting that drastically reducing the number of strains in each lab may be a compromise, if destroying them entirely is not agreed upon.  The WHO's World Health Assembly is meeting all week in Geneva. The smallpox issue is expected to be debated by Wednesday or Thursday.

soundoff (100 Responses)
  1. Antonio Velasquez Jr.

    ...Or we can feel royal and superior enough to classify whom ever we hate as undesireable. And manage to gather them all together on one side of the planet while manipulating the planetary magnetic fields just enough to approximate that side of the planet to the face of the sun at a pre- calculated distance to the radioactive heat rays.Thereby killing all life form on their side of the planet. While we believe, decieved by the powers and the evil influence of the antichrist, that all will be well with all on the other side of our planet.THINK ALL HOLY CREATION.

    May 18, 2011 at 00:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Antonio Velasquez Jr.

    Thank You, POWER, that transcends powers, for sending the LORD. "The Lord is my Shepherd;I shall not want."

    May 18, 2011 at 00:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Antonio Velasquez Jr.

    Then again we all need something to do. Lets continue to hunt and prey... ah,hope and pray.

    May 18, 2011 at 01:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Antonio Velasquez Jr.

    ...Or hunt and prey AND hunt and pray.Whatever it takes. If you ask me,i will feel compelled to say, we did it. We changed the world,but it could not have been done without the whiskey and the rye and the right.

    May 18, 2011 at 01:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Antonio Velasquez Jr.

    Small Pox laced whiskey,anyone?

    May 18, 2011 at 01:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. DanteX


    The sheer ARROGANCE and EGO of the Sapien species is as astonishing as it is PATHETIC.

    To think that you can simply "control" or "engineer" Nature and simply eradicate "FOREVER" a pathogen that is part of and ENTIRE FAMLY of viruses that has in all likelihood been on the face of the Earth since the time BEFORE the Dinosaurs first walked the Earth is simply delusional.

    The misguided attempt at bringing about the type of "control" -or more appropriately put, the very "extinction"- of the smallpox virus that is being undertaken on the part of Sapiens is a futile – And it is simply NOT possible.

    IF the smallpox virus COULD have been "eliminated" from the face of the Earth – THEN the chickenpox virus and monkeypox virus WOULD HAVE ALREADY BEEN ELIMINATED. And THAT has NOT happened. Not only are these pathogens resilent and sturdy – They also have the ability to "jump species" as well.


    May 18, 2011 at 04:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Christian


      Why is it so impossible to believe that it can be destroyed? The human race has caused the extinction of many animal species that had been around for millions of years prior to the emergence of h. sapien, so why would the smallpox virus be any different. In addition, viruses mutate and change over time so to think that this virus was the same 60 million years ago during the dinosaur era is naive and incorrect.

      May 18, 2011 at 16:42 | Report abuse |
    • Me

      I know it's only human nature to be one, but man you are a narcissist and a hypocrit

      February 26, 2016 at 11:36 | Report abuse |
  7. ellisarr

    The native Americans would disagree with "While experts agree smallpox would not be an effective bioweapon because once you unleash it, you can't just target a specific population, the more likely scenario for a new outbreak would be a release by someone with an undeclared stash. The WHO inspects the two known stockpiles." And as for destroying the two known stockpiles, it seems only to be a measure of providing a false sense of security. There is no guarantee they are the only existing stockpiles. Who is to say what the future brings, God help us all, as it is, Genetic engineering will continue. Evil exists. I would be more secure knowing the CDC has the variola virus stored for future vaccines.

    May 18, 2011 at 07:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cathy W

      Just because it's been used against the Native Americans, doesn't mean it's a good weapon. It's very difficult to control, and fairly likely to come back and infect the population that unleashed it in the first place. It was also a different time – 300 years ago, people were accustomed to regular SP outbreaks. Old World populations had some natural immunity against the disease (maybe 20% would die, but 80% didn't). NA on the other hand, due to 10K years of separation from Old World diseases had zero immunity, and the deathrate was closer to 90%. Even so, when the settlers gave the smallpox infested blankets to the local tribes, it's entirely possible that the dying NA could have passed it back to the European population.

      May 18, 2011 at 15:59 | Report abuse |
    • Cathy W

      I forgot to say that due to lower population, spreading from town to town was less likely as population centers were more isolated, and the settlers were often the ones who were the survivors of outbreaks and thus immune – as a biological weapon, it was far less dangerous to themselves as it would be today.

      May 18, 2011 at 16:01 | Report abuse |
  8. Phil, Ohio

    This question came-up a few years ago and the answer back then, was no!
    Do not destroy the Small Pox or the data on the vaccine!
    If we ever make it to another world, beside the Moon, we may encounter Small Pox or a variant of it and a new vaccine will need to be developed.

    May 18, 2011 at 12:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Antonio Velasquez Jr.


    May 30, 2011 at 00:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Peter

    Yes. But the question really should hve been WHY or WHY NOT. That would have been a useful debate.

    May 30, 2011 at 20:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Pete

    It's just the same as the question about having loaded weapons around your house or not. It's really a no-brainer. "But finding someone who could do it, ....Damon says." Damon doesn't know what he's talking about. Try me. I'm a microbiologist.

    June 10, 2011 at 15:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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