It sounds like the premise for a mid-90s disease outbreak drama. A couple of vials of the smallpox virus misplaced in an unsecured freezer or closet at a government facility with the potential to fall into God knows whose hands. In this case, it seems that luckily they were found by benevolent scientists (likely played by a saucy Rene Russo in her prime), not some nefarious figure or a bumbling bureaucrat, which could be just as disastrous.
Scientists cleaning out an old laboratory on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., last week came across a startling discovery: vials labeled “variola” — in other words, smallpox.
Under international convention, there are supposed to be only two stashes of this deadly virus: one at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and another at a similar facility in Russia.
The CDC swooped in to collect the vials and carted them off to a secure lab at its Atlanta headquarters.
In a statement Tuesday, the agency said scientists did indeed find smallpox DNA in the vials. Scientists are now testing the sample to see whether any of the is still capable of causing disease. That testing will take two weeks.
Incidentally, two weeks is about the amount of time it takes for smallpox to kill about 30 percent of the people infected. Just to be clear, they found smallpox. In a closet. During an office move. The CDC fact page on potential smallpox outbreak assures us that it only exists in a couple approved labs:
Today, the smallpox virus is kept in two approved labs in the U.S. and Russia.
It’s the second lab lapse discovered in a month at federal facilities, though this mistake actually happened decades ago, experts emphasized. In June, more than 80 employees at a Centers for Disease Control laboratory were exposed to airborne anthrax bacteria in an embarrassing blunder.
No one really needs to be informed that errant smallpox samples are potentially catastrophic, but just to bring the point home, there’s this story. Once the world’s most prolific killer disease was eradicated in 1980, there were several samples kept for study. In the 1990s, there was a global debate in the science and public health communities about whether to destroy those samples, with the decision made by the World Health Organization to keep them.
The same debate is raging again now:
This month the World Health Organization (WHO) will meet to decide whether or not to destroy the last living strains of the variola virus, which causes smallpox. Since the WHO declared the disease eradicated in 1979, the scientific community has debated whether or not to destroy live virus samples, which have been consolidated to laboratories in Russia and at the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Small frozen test tubes preserve the surviving strains, and most were collected around the time of eradication, though some date to the early 1930s.
Inger Damon, who leads the poxvirus and rabies branch at the CDC, and her colleagues argue in an editorial in PLoS Pathogens today to save the virus from full extinction. According to Damon, retaining the live samples will allow researchers to delve into unanswered questions about the variola virus and to test better vaccines, diagnostics, and drugs. “There is more work to be done before the international community can be confident that it possesses sufficient protection against any future smallpox threats,” they write.
Other scientists argue it’s unnecessary to keep the virus around, as the last natural recorded case occurred in 1977. They also argue that any further experimentation can be done on smallpox relatives that are less dangerous. And, last, that advances in synthetic biology have made the samples superfluous because we can recreate the disease’s genetic sequence.
The other reason?
Maintaining the samples comes with a risk of accidental release, as with any other high-risk pathogen.
To Poland, those risks are ultimately unnecessary; in fact, he argues that we have an ethical burden to destroy the virus or at least restrict its research use and access. “An accidental release, no matter how small the risk is an unacceptable risk, given the lack of any possible utility in keeping the virus,” he said in 2011.
I’ve written twice previously this year about the renewed debate about whether or not the last known samples of smallpox should be destroyed, here and here. As I noted then, a good part of the argument in favor of the argument to destroy the samples is that they are, in fact, the last known samples of the virus on the planet. If they aren’t, then it’s always possible that the virus, or a mutated form of it, could return and wreck havoc on public health before medical professionals are able to come up with effective countermeasures. By maintaining the samples, there would at least be the possibility of having something of a running start in the event that happened. Now that we have confirmation that even the CDC may not have a handle on all its smallpox samples, it seems to me as though the debate is over. Keep the samples we have alive. Better safe than sorry.
In yet another movie-style twist, some argue it’s worth keeping the samples around because dead bodies buried in cold climes could still carry traces of viable smallpox. Now, we find that perhaps the discussion of eradication of the last strains of smallpox was premature. Everyone check their minifridges, please.