Scientists recommend further research, delay in destruction of last stocks of smallpox

May 1, 2014, Public Library of Science

Variola, the virus that causes smallpox, is on the agenda of the upcoming meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the governing body of the World Health Organization. The decision to be made is whether the last known remaining live strains of the virus should be destroyed. An international group of scientists led by Inger Damon, from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, argue in an opinion piece published on May 1st in PLOS Pathogens that the WHA should not choose destruction, because crucial scientific questions remain unanswered and important public health goals unmet.

Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, the only for which successful eradication has been achieved to date. Since then, limited research focusing on diagnostic, antiviral and vaccine development, under close direction and oversight, has continued in two high-security laboratories—one in Russia and one in the US—the only places that are known still to have live variola strains. The justification for this research is that smallpox might re-appear via intentional release. Indeed, recent advances in make the possibility of re-creating the live virus from scratch more plausible.

Summarizing the focus and the achievements of the research on live variola over the past several decades, the authors of the PLOS Pathogens article mention several new smallpox vaccines (the ones widely used prior to eradication would not meet today's stricter safety standards for routine use) and two new that, based on research so far, appear to be promising antivirals against the virus that causes smallpox. However, both of these drug candidates have not yet been licensed for use against the disease. "Despite these considerable advances, they argue that "the research agenda with live variola virus is not yet finished".

Discussing the significant remaining knowledge gaps, they highlight that while "variola is unusual in that it is known to be a sole human pathogen, the viral and host factors responsible for this human-specific tropism remain essentially unknown to this day" and argue that "greater exploitation of current technologies may lead to additional therapeutic or diagnostic products to better respond to any future emergency situation resulting from a appearance." In light of published variola genome sequences and current capabilities of synthetic biology, they also question whether the ultimate destruction of the variola virus is actually feasible or meaningful.

Overall, the authors conclude that research on live variola "remains vital" and "the original goals of the WHO agenda for newer and safer vaccines, fully licensed antiviral drugs, and better diagnostics have still not been fully met".

Explore further: Man who got smallpox vaccine passes milder infection to sex partner

More information: Damon IK, Damaso CR, McFadden G (2014) Are We There Yet? The Smallpox Research Agenda Using Variola Virus. PLoS Pathog 10(5): e1004108. DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1004108

Related Stories

Man who got smallpox vaccine passes milder infection to sex partner

February 28, 2013
(HealthDay)—A man recently vaccinated for smallpox under a U.S. Defense Department program passed a milder, related form of the disease on to a man he had sex with, and that man then passed it on to yet another man, federal ...

Is the end of polio truly in sight?

November 30, 2011
Declaring the eradication of polio will be far more difficult than it was for smallpox, according to a review published in the Journal of General Virology. Further research into the complex virus - host interactions and how ...

Recommended for you

New study offers insights on genetic indicators of COPD risk

January 16, 2018
Researchers have discovered that genetic variations in the anatomy of the lungs could serve as indicators to help identify people who have low, but stable, lung function early in life, and those who are particularly at risk ...

Previous influenza virus exposures enhance susceptibility in another influenza pandemic

January 16, 2018
While past exposure to influenza A viruses often builds immunity to similar, and sometimes different, strains of the virus, Canadian researchers are calling for more attention to exceptions to that rule.

Don't hold your nose and close your mouth when you sneeze, doctors warn

January 15, 2018
Pinching your nose while clamping your mouth shut to contain a forceful sneeze isn't a good idea, warn doctors in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

New antifungal provides hope in fight against superbugs

January 12, 2018
Microscopic yeast have been wreaking havoc in hospitals around the world—creeping into catheters, ventilator tubes, and IV lines—and causing deadly invasive infection. One culprit species, Candida auris, is resistant ...

Dengue takes low and slow approach to replication

January 11, 2018
A new study reveals how dengue virus manages to reproduce itself in an infected person without triggering the body's normal defenses. Duke researchers report that dengue pulls off this hoax by co-opting a specialized structure ...

Different strains of same bacteria trigger widely varying immune responses

January 11, 2018
Genetic differences between different strains of the same pathogenic bacterial species appear to result in widely varying immune system responses, according to new research published in PLOS Pathogens.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.