On Tuesday, global health officials from the WHO delayed the destruction of smallpox for at least another three years. The best or worst idea ever?
After more than 300 million people died from smallpox in the 20 century alone, the virus was finally “eradicated” in 1979. Samples of the virus, however, are still alive and kicking at a Russian government laboratory near Novosibirsk in Siberia, and at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, for research purposes and it looks like they will be for at least another three years.
A WHO panel first recommended the total destruction of these samples in the late 1980s, but America resisted, arguing that researchers needed more time to develop safe vaccines and antivirals. It is feared that unsanctioned stocks or a synthesized version of the virus may still exist, and an accidental outbreak, or even an act of bioterrorism, is a possibility. After two days of intense debate at the 64th World Health Assembly this week, it was announced that the US and Russian samples will be kept for at least another three years, despite protestations that vaccines are already sufficiently sophisticated to deal with an outbreak. So just how foolish is this decision?