The eradication of smallpox was possibly the greatest victory of science over disease in the history of mankind. Thanks to a determined, worldwide vaccination effort, led by the World Health Organization, the last known human smallpox case occurred over 30 years ago, in Somalia in 1977. The WHO declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.
But smallpox isn't completely gone. That's because two large government laboratories, one in the U.S. and one in Russia, insist on maintaining stocks of the smallpox virus (called variola). In the U.S., the smallpox virus is kept at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. In Russia, it's at the Vector lab in Siberia.
Why keep this incredibly deadly virus around? The scientists at the CDC and in Russia give the same answer: more research is needed to develop better vaccines, to protect us from a bioterrorism attack. "We still have work to do to protect the public," said Ali Khan, a smallpox researcher at the CDC, quoted just last week in the Washington Post.
They've been making this argument for 30 years now, but they are wrong. The only thing they need to do is to destroy their stocks of smallpox, and wipe out this virus once and for all. This seems like an obvious thing to do, but it's obvious now that the scientists whose jobs depend on keeping the smallpox around will never agree to destroy it. Nor will their bosses at the CDC. Yet keeping the smallpox around dramatically increases the risk that a deranged person will get his hands on it and release it in the population.
A smallpox outbreak would indeed be a frightening scenario: smallpox has a mortality rate of 30-35%, and it has been called one of the most devastating diseases in the history of mankind. In the 18th century, it killed 400,000 Europeans each year, and in the 1950s it was still infecting 50 million people a year worldwide. Routine vaccination ended about 35 years ago, which would make an outbreak today truly devastating. But an outbreak cannot happen if we destroy the smallpox that the U.S. and Russia are still holding.
Back in 1999, the WHO set a deadline to destroy the remaining smallpox samples, but the U.S. and Russia have repeatedly delayed action. At the 2006 meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA), virtually every country agreed, again, that the smallpox should be destroyed, but the U.S. and Russia objected, and no date was set to destroy the remaining stocks. The WHA will meet again this coming May, and smallpox will be on the agenda. Unless President Obama takes a firm stand, I expect that the U.S. will once again insist on keeping its smallpox stores.
Experts such as D.A. Henderson, who led the effort to eradicate smallpox, have pointed out that we can develop new vaccines without the virus. The genome has been sequenced several times over, and we have the technology to synthesize parts of the virus if we really need it for vaccine design. Despite these facts, the old guard at the CDC will never agree to destroy their smallpox willingly.
President Obama: here is an opportunity to do the right thing. You can order the CDC to destroy their stocks of smallpox, and eliminate this unnecessary risk from the planet. The United States can and should take the moral lead on this public health threat, rather than stonewalling once again at the next World Health Assembly. Destroy the smallpox, and wipe out this scourge once and for all.