Scientists say smallpox virus shouldn’t be destroyed

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Over the coming weeks the World Health Organisation must decide whether to execute a mass murderer. The killer is the variola virus, the pathogen that causes smallpox, a disease that killed more than 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

Now, more than 30 years since WHO declared the disease eradicated – the only infectious human disease to ever be totally wiped out – the same organisation must decide if the few remaining stocks of the virus, which are held in highly secured research laboratories in Russia and the US should be destroyed.

While killing the variola stocks would prevent the pathogen being intentionally released as an act of terrorism, a prospect politicians and public health officials have feared since the virus was eradicated in 1980, three world-leading virologists say the stocks should be kept for further research in the event the disease does re-emerge.

Despite significant advances in vaccine and antiviral drugs, Inger Damon, Grant McFadden and Clarissa Damaso, who all advise or work for WHO, say the underlying biology of the virus is still unknown and further work is needed to develop accurate diagnostic tools for the disease, which can be difficult to distinguish from other pox viruses that infect humans, such as monkey pox.
“There is more work to be done before the international community can be confident that it possesses sufficient protection against any future smallpox threats,” said the researchers, who have published an opinion piece in the scientific journal PLoS Pathogens.

“While certain aspects of the original research goals using live virus have been met, other key items, like the wider approval of accurate diagnostics that can distinguish smallpox from other orthopoxvirus diseases or the full licensure of new antiviral drugs and vaccines that are effective against variola virus, have not yet been completed,” they said.

While the virus has not been intentionally released as a biological weapon in modern times, it was used in warfare in the 17th and 18th centuries. The British used it against the Americans in the American Revolutionary War.

Shortly after smallpox was eradicated, a decision was made to ultimately destroy the remaining stocks of live variola virus, with interim use of the virus permitted only for defined WHO-approved research projects, said Dr Damon, from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US.

“Variola virus stocks were then voluntarily consolidated in the early 1980s to two WHO Collaborating Centre laboratories, one in Russia and the other in the United States, which remain the only two WHO-approved sites for research with live variola virus,” she said.

Infection disease physician and academic Sanjaya Senanayake said it seemed reasonable that scientists continue working on the virus if the original research goals of the World Health Organisation – to improve vaccines, treatment and diagnosis of the disease – had not been met.

Dr Senanayake, an associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, said there had been no cases of the virus being used a biological weapon since it was eradicated.
He said further vaccine and diagnostic research was needed in the event the disease re-emerged because today’s doctors would have had limited experience diagnosing it.

“Despite being infectious disease physicians, most of us have never seen a case of smallpox,” Dr Senanayake said.

Humans have likely been infected with smallpox since antiquity, and by the 1950s an estimated 50 million cases occured each year. The variola virus is unique because it only infects humans.


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