Indian official says not destroying smallpox could increase chances of bioterrorism

Kalyan Banerjee, the former director of the National Institute of Virology in Pune, India, said that delaying the destruction of remaining smallpox virus could raise the chances for the deadly virus to be used in bioterrorism.

The World Health Assembly announced last Tuesday that any decision on the destruction of the two remaining known stocks would be deferred for “crucial research” based on the virus, The Economic Times reports.

Smallpox was eradicated officially in 1980. After all countries were asked to surrender their stocks of the virus to the World Health Organization, the virus was relegated to two WHO-sanctioned facilities at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a Russian facility in Kolsovo in Siberia.

"If the destruction is delayed indefinitely, the synthesis and preparation of small pox virus as a bio-weapon, by a non-superpower would increase and it may truly become a poor man's atom bomb," Banerjee said, according to The Economic Times. "In my opinion, the world will gain much more by destroying the last traces of the virus than by keeping it.”

Banerjee was a former member of a WHO advisory committee on smallpox research and he is now a committee advisor.

"The arguments tendered in favor of retaining the virus appear to be unconvincing,” Banerjee said, according to The Economic Times. “To put it bluntly, it is the same logic, by which the superpowers continue the possession of the nuclear weapons; they wish to hold on to the smallpox virus as a super bio-weapon. The research is being drawn on and on, but research cannot be made a tool or apology for the indefinite retention of the virus."

Banerjee said that the smallpox researchers wished to sequence one strain each of “variola major” and “variola minor” for archival purposes. According to Banerjee, the researchers have now fully sequenced over 40 strains and could continue by sequencing all possible strains.