Sebelius calls for retention of smallpox samples

In a New York Times editorial on Monday, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius discussed the need to keep samples of the deadly smallpox virus on hand in the  United States.

The piece comes several weeks ahead of a vote that will occur between member states of the World Health Organization to determine if the last known samples of the virus should be destroyed. Sebelius said that though destruction should definitely be planned, immediate destruction might be a bad decision.

“Those who advocate immediate destruction would have us believe that another smallpox outbreak is unthinkable,” Sebelius wrote, according to the New York Times. “They want us to believe that there is no need to ensure the global community is adequately prepared to deal with an outbreak and that the only risk comes from maintaining the highly secured samples...It should not. Although keeping the samples may carry a miniscule risk, both the United States and Russia believe the dangers of destroying them now are far greater.”

Sebelius describes smallpox as a devastating disease that killed over 300 million people in the 20th century and scarred or blinded many others. The disease was eradicated by 1980, at which time the WHO called for its destruction in all but two sanctioned labs located in the United States and Russia.

Sebelius said that just because there was a call for destruction at this time, that does not mean that there aren’t forgotten or undisclosed stocks. In addition, the virus’ genomic information is available online and technology currently exists for someone to create a new smallpox virus in a laboratory.

She argues that since today’s population has no immunity to the disease, scientists must continue to develop, test, license and improve drugs to treat and vaccinate against smallpox. Destroying the stockpiles in the United States would slow down progress and leave the world vulnerable, she wrote.

“Destruction of the last securely stored viruses is an irrevocable action that should occur only when the global community has eliminated the threat of smallpox once and for all,” Sebelius wrote, according to the New York Times. “To do any less keeps future generations at risk from the re-emergence of one of the deadliest diseases humanity has ever known. Until this research is complete, we cannot afford to take that risk.”