An estimated 300 million people died from the smallpox virus in the 20th century. Then a was developed, and the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated in 1979. Since then, the only live variola samples, the virus that causes smallpox, are isolated in laboratories at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, and in Russia. It’s been 45 years. Should we destroy those samples and sent the virus to extinction? Some say yes, to safeguard the world from the possibility of containment failure or a terrorist using the disease as a weapon. Others say it’s worth keeping for the research potential and vaccine testing.
But do we really need all of these vaccines for a disease that’s no longer around in humans? The last natural case was diagnosed in 1977, and today, the risk of a smallpox outbreak emerging is minuscule. However, scientists don’t know exactly how long variola virus can survive in dead tissue.
Researchers have successfully revived ancient viruses when the right environmental conditions preserve a specimen. Thus, live forms of the virus could potentially come from frozen mummies and old tissue samples. And when such specimens do turn up, they raise valid alarms: New York construction workers unearthed a 19th-century woman who died of smallpox in 2011 and immediately called in the CDC, only to find that her corpse didn’t pose a threat to humans. A smallpox scab preserved in a letter from 1876, recently on display at a museum in Virginia, raised a scare, but turned out to be harmless.
The World Health Organization will meet to decide the question of the remaining smallpox samples later this month. Read more about both sides of the question at Smithsonain.