Sunday, October 2, 2011

Smallpox Stocks: Keep or Kill?

As we examined the complex, brick-shaped structure of the Smallpox virus in class, and observed a photo of a Somalian man known as one of the last natural cases of this infectious disease, the recent controversy over keeping the last stocks of the Variola virus came up to my mind. About four months ago, on May 24th, the World Health Organization announced that it will defer any decisions regarding the destruction or maintenance of the two last stocks of the virus to 2014, mainly due to an opposition lead by Iran.
These two stocks, located in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Kosovo, are "believed" to be the last existing sources of the virus since its successful eradication in 1980. The word "believed" here is especially important: It is still unclear to many whether all the forgotten stocks and collections of the Variola virus were completely destroyed after the World Health Organization (WHO) requested of all nations to do so in 1980. Additionally, as the US secretary of health Kathleen Sebelius fears in her article "Why We Still Need Smallpox", it is evident that any geneticist with cruel intentions and incredible resources could recreate the virus, since its full sequenced genomic information are now available online. All these questions remain unanswered.
The article below, by BBC News, offers great insight into this controversial yet significant issue. Should the stocks be kept for more research, the generation of newer vaccines in case of an accidental outbreak, or simply for preventing the extinction of a species? If all the genomic characteristics of the virus are known, and if it would be completely possible to perform research without the stocks, then is there really a solid reason for keeping them?
I guess we would have to wait until 2014 for further clarification.

Should the US and Russia destroy their Smallpox stocks?, BBC News Health, 16 May 2011

Why We Still Need Smallpox, US secretary of health Kathleen Sebelius, 25th April 2011

Smallpox Decision Deferred Again, article posted exactly a month after the one above as a response to the WHO's decision, BBC News Health, 24th May 2011

- Julie Saffarian

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