The US and Russia have secured themselves another three years to carry out vital research into the smallpox virus, after the World Health Organization's (WHO) annual shindig rejected calls for the immediate destruction of the countries' variola stockpiles. Smallpox was effectively eradicated over 30 years ago, and for 25 years …
Very awkward problem.
Very awkward problem. Throw away the blueprint and you'll never know when you'll need it. On the other hand, keeping it might be enormously risky in future uncertain times.
Instinctively, to me, WHO has made the right decision (I say this knowing full well that multiple strands of Smallpox DNA have been sequenced).
And they should
The smallpox virus is actually too complex to reconstruct from DNA sequence. It is so big that it is almost visible under a microscope. There is a whole raft of proteins, enzymes, etc which it carries which need to made, assembled correctly and tucked onto the re-synthesized DNA. We are not there to do it just yet. So the idea of "we know the sequence, we will just reassemble it is utterly bogus. The most we can do is try to graft some material on cowpox probably creating something even more dangerous in the process.
As a number of researchers in the last decade noticed smallpox targets the same surface proteins as HIV and the "black death survivor" mutation which renders you invulnerable to HIV also affects your vulnerability to smallpox. The outburst of HIV worldwide also coincides too well with the eradication of smallpox and termination of all pox vaccination. That is by the way officially noted in the CDC analysis on the subject.
As long as we cannot rebuild it and as long as we have not figured out what is the exact relationship with HIV the stocks should stay and research should continue.
As far as it getting out of the lab it is not that easy. You can probably eat lyophilised stock from the fridge with impunity. It has to be correctly reconstituted, grown for a couple of generations on cell media to regain proper "shape" and only then it will be dangerous. The reason is exactly the same - it is a complex bugger with very complex surface proteins. If all of them are not "ticking" correctly it fails to function. Making a freshly reconstituded one with damaged surface proteins face an active immune system will in most cases lead to its elimination instead of infecting the host. Ideas like Beeb-s scarymentary "SmallPox" where the commenter says that "you can grow it on your windowsill" are utterly bogus. I used to grow viruses (less dangerous ones) in my mol biol classes and in a class of 8, 5 people actually failed that lab exercise - the virus (something out of the herpes family, forgot what it was) refused to infect the cell culture.
Good. Now let's hope they figure out exact relationship between it, HIV resistance and the black death. Pity it cannot be researched on a bigger scale.
On more philosophical note
This would also be the first time, at least in modern history, that we knowingly and intentionally caused on extinction. Sure it's just a virus, and a nasty one, but is that really a good thing to do?
Very good point
In this specific case I say "Do it!", provided (as mentioned above) we can still study it in a meaningful way.
Along those lines, there was a suggestion in Nature to wipe out mosquitoes:
It would definitely save many lives, but what knock-on effects would it have on other organisms, and is it something we should actually do?
Have to agree
In something as complex as nature "god" only knows what the effects would be. I don't go along with the slippery slope thought but if you really wanted to remove a really dangerous species I think we would be first on the list!
By "god" I mean no one :-)
Don't want to point out the blindingly obvious, but Edward Jenner didn't know anything about DNA reconstruction or anthing complex. He simply swabbed Cowpox and gave it to humans.
OK, it is a little more complex than that, but we shouldn't forget the root of all vaccines.
(for the record, I'm for WHO keeping hold of some securely, e.g. Switzerland - don't trust the Merkins. Cassandra Crossing? Great movie)