Should the last remaining samples of live variola virus — the biological agent that causes smallpox — be destroyed in the name of global security?

According to the authors of a comment on the matter in the latest edition of the British medical journal the Lancet, no, they should not. Public health experts Jean-Vivien Mombouli, of the National Public Health Laboratory in Brazzaville, Congo Republic, and Stephen Ostroff, of the Bureau of Epidemiology, Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Epidemiology in Harrisburg, Pa., argue that destroying those samples would impede international efforts to develop better vaccines and other measures to prevent widespread illness and death should the smallpox virus ever be reintroduced.

They also note that another disease closely related to smallpox, monkeypox, has appeared in Africa; containing outbreaks of that pox, they say, might depend on knowledge and materials derived from work with smallpox virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared smallpox eradicated in 1980 after an extensive vaccination campaign; the last naturally occurring case was in 1977. WHO asked that almost all remaining live virus be destroyed, with authorized samples being held in secure laboratories only in the United States and Russia. It is possible, though, that other samples are being secretly held elsewhere and could fall into the hands of bioterrorists, the authors note.

The controversy over destroying smallpox virus stocks has been percolating for years, but it will surface again in May when the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of WHO, discusses whether to set a date for destroying those last samples.

The authors think such destruction would be a big mistake.

“Wishing for luck and hoping for the best were not the strategies used to eradicate smallpox,” they write. “It was active plans, robust strategy, and clear goals, despite naysayers, setbacks, and risk of failure. The scientists at work on variola countermeasures are guided by the same principles. They have made solid progress but are not yet done. They should be allowed to finish for the good of public health and global security.”

What do you think? Would it be safer to destroy the stored virus, or should we keep it on hand as these experts suggest?