Should we destroy the variola virus?

07 March 2016

Interview with

Professor Geoffrey Smith, University of Cambridge

Smallpox was eradicated in 1980. But, 30 years later, the virus that causes it is not gone at all. It exists in two labs, one in Russia and the other in America. Georgia Mills spoke to Professor Geoffrey Smith, to hear the end of smallpox's story. 

Geoffrey -   It might sound logical that at the end of a disease eradication programme, that the virus that causes that disease should also be eradicated and many people took that view.  Other people, however, argued that we didn't really understand why that virus was able to cause such a devastating disease in man and, if we conducted further research on that virus and gained that understanding, that would be helpful not only for perhaps treating and preventing other poxvirus infections, but other virus infections in general. So in 1996, The World Health Assembly adopted a recommendation made by the orthopoxvirus committee that advised the WHO that all remaining virus should be destroyed.  So that recommendation was made in 1996 and the World Health Assembly debated it and passed that resolution.  The date for destruction was set in 1999, and that date came and went and the destruction did not take place.

Georgia - So what happened? Well there was a postponement so that three lines of research that needed the virus could be continued.  These were producing diagnostic test for future cases of smallpox, creating a safer vaccine and making antiviral drugs so the disease could be treated.  But, if the virus that cause smallpox, called variola, was destroyed, why would we need drugs to treat it?

Geoffrey - The reason that some nation states wanted to develop drugs was the fear that actually the virus, even if it were destroyed at the two collaborating centres, might exist somewhere else.  And I think it was following the attacks in the U.S.A. in 9/11 that the U.S. government, for instance, felt that if people were prepared to fly aeroplanes into densely populated buildings, then would they stop at using a virus of this type as a bioterror weapon if they were able to get their hands on it.

Georgia - So are there any risks to having these remain in the U.S.A. and Russia?

Geoffrey - Well there is certainly a finite risk in keeping a virus.  I mean you have to maintain the security.  I have to say that the security is very good and both these facilities are inspected regularly by WHO authorised teams and I think the chances of the virus getting out of either place is remote.  More of a concern would be that it's out there somewhere else that we don't know about already or that it could be remade.

Georgia - Some argue that if the virus could be remade anyway, there's no reason not to destroy the samples but others argue this would be premature and we still have a lot to learn from them. Geoffrey Chairs the WHO's Advisory Committee on Variola Virus, who meet to discuss the need to continue this research so I asked him - will we ever be closing the book on smallpox for good?

Geoffrey - The decision to destroy the virus is taken - it's not a case of if, it's only a case of when.

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