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Safeguard Against a Scourge

November 10, 1987

Ten years ago a Somalian villager fell ill with smallpox, hardly an unusual occurrence except that since then no other documentable case of the disease has appeared anywhere in the world. Virologists, in consequence, have long since concluded that smallpox as a naturally transmitted disease has ceased to exist. Its eradication, after thousands of years during which it took a fearsome toll in human life, is one of the great triumphs of public health. With the disappearance of the disease, research with the variola virus that caused it has stopped. That in turn has some scientists pondering an intriguing philosophical question: Should the last remaining laboratory stocks of the virus now be destroyed?

Only two such stocks remain. Both are kept frozen in high security lockers, one at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the other in a Moscow laboratory. There is virtually no chance that these specimens could accidentally be let loose on a vulnerable world. But if research with live smallpox viruses is no longer carried out, and if the disease itself has become something for history books rather than medical texts, why allow examples of the virus to survive?

A recent worldwide poll, reported in the Lancet, a British medical magazine, found that fewer than 10% of the virologists who responded favor preserving the stored viruses. The rest were prepared to see them destroyed, thus cleaning the world of this infectious scourge. The preservationists argue that in secure storage the virus presents no danger, but that its existence could serve as a safeguard against possible secret preparation by some country of germ warfare stocks. As it happens, both the United States and the Soviet Union continue to vaccinate their armed forces against a disease that apparently no longer exists, a fact that some regard as highly suspicious. At the same time, though, it's generally acknowledged that the smallpox virus is not one of the more potent weapons available for biological warfare.

The evidence that smallpox has ceased to be a risk, possibly for all time to come, doesn't mean, we think, that the last causative agents of this disease ought now to be destroyed. We're uncomfortable with that idea, not just because the deliberate eradication of a species would be something unprecedented, but also because the future is as always unknowable, and the door on potential research shouldn't be irrevocably closed. The small vials of variola virus kept frozen at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit pose no risk. Someday, maybe, they might be needed to do some good.

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