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Should the Smallpox Virus Stocks Be Destroyed?

A Long-Standing Disagreement with an Uncertain Resolution

JANUARY 11, 2011—Baltimore, MD—One of the most contentious debates in the area of international health centers on whether the remaining stocks of variola virus—the causative agent of smallpox—should be destroyed. This discussion may soon come to a head at the World Health Assembly in Geneva in May 2011. Those who favor the destruction of the virus and those who believe it should be retained are mustering their arguments. In an article published online today in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, the history of this 15-year-old debate is reviewed and a “grand bargain” is offered as a possible solution.

The author, Jonathan B. Tucker, PhD, is the Georg Zundel Professor of Science and Technology for Peace and Security at the Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany and author of the book Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox. In the Biosecurity and Bioterrorism article, he traces the history of how the variola virus came to be held in 2 WHO-approved locations: in the U.S., at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and in the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in the Siberian town of Koltsovo. He also details the arguments for and against retaining these stocks of the virus, even after the disease has been eradicated.

Over the years, the official U.S. position has been that the viral stocks should be kept so that defensive research can continue, including development of additional vaccines and antiviral drugs and the sequencing of the smallpox genome. But, increasingly, international opposition to keeping the virus has been raised, especially among the developing countries of Africa and Asia, whose populations have suffered disproportionately from the disease and who fear that an accidental release would take a heavy toll in their countries.

Leading up to the World Health Assembly, U.S. policymakers are weighing the possible benefits of continued research with the live virus against the potential safety, security, and political risks. Dr. Tucker offers several policy recommendations, including the destruction of all but a small number of the strains at both the U.S. and Russian repositories, that could be useful in resolving this long-standing debate.

The article, titled “Breaking the Deadlock Over Destruction of the Smallpox Virus Stocks,” appears online ahead of print in the March 2011 issue of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. ( The article is available free online at


Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, a quarterly peer-reviewed journal, is published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. It provides an international forum for debate and exploration of the many key strategic, scientific, and operational issues posed by biological weapons and bioterrorism.

The Center for Biosecurity is an independent, nonprofit organization of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) whose mission is to strengthen national security by reducing the risks posed by biological attacks, epidemics, and other destabilizing events, and to improve the nation’s resilience in the face of such events.



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