I hear through the BBC grapevine that the 64th WHO Health Assembly is occurring this week,* and that one of the topics up for debate is the final destruction of the two remaining smallpox virus samples in the world. For a disease as dangerous and weaponisable as smallpox, the cynical side of me sees the retention of these as a biological version of the mutually assured destruction made popular by nuclear warheads. Sure, both Russia and the US claim that further research into the smallpox virus is needed, but is that really the case? The virus has been sequenced, and can (alarmingly) be built from scratch if you have the right research tools, very high levels of expertise, and the proper funds (slightly less alarming). Is there then any point in destroying the existing samples? I would initially say yes – the risks of accidental release are greater than the risks of accidentally creating smallpox somewhere new, and the consequences of release are catastrophic. Deaths in the millions. Only milkmaids and microbiology consultants would be left unscathed.
The problem is that I have an innate railing against the intentional extinction of a species, even one as questionably alive and pointless as a virus. It sits ill with me, like the death sentence – a barbaric and uncivilised way to exist. We are basically talking about eradicating a life form for our own personal gain: however we dress it up, it is an ultimate act of selfishness. I know that viruses aren’t exactly the most aware of life forms, or even life forms per se (MRS GREN anyone? no? no more key stage 3 biology?) but I still can’t quite bring myself to condemn them to extinction at the drop of a hat. It’s illogical and I recognise that. I also believe that were the leaders of the world to come to my door and ask me to make the decision (a likely scenario, I know), I would wind up forcing myself to destroy the virus. Frankly, an irrational desire to not destroy an inanimate set of proteins and RNA capable of decimating or ending the lives of so many people is not a good enough reason to sit on the fence. I don’t see that there is enough reasons remaining to study smallpox that would balance out that risk. The claim is that a related pox might mutate or be edited to produce a new smallpox pandemic (which is what it would be), and that having the old smallpox around allows the development of safer and better vaccines against it.
Bullshit, says I. That old spectre of MAD has just risen again, the existing vaccines work just fine (as demonstrated by smallpox’s eradication) and it comes as no surprise that the only remaining stocks are held by Russia and the USA, both of whom argue to keep it. Interestingly, the fight to have it eradicated was spearheaded by Iran. The outcome of this most recent discussion on the fate of smallpox is that it is to be kept, but new research limited. I wonder what the true rationale behind keeping smallpox around is, when these countries are honest about it?
What would you do?
*I forgot this post existed, so ‘this week’ is now ‘ages ago’.