Tracking Down Smallpox Before It Kills Anew

A brilliant idea from Ken Bernard and Ken Coleman from the op-ed page in yesterday’s WSJ.


Tracking Down Smallpox Before It Kills Anew

Do more samples of the virus lie hidden in labs? Pay scientists who find them.

Sept. 4, 2014 7:04 a.m. ET

Ebola is now the infectious disease of international concern, but many have forgotten what a massive killer smallpox once was. Before it was declared eradicated in 1977, smallpox killed as many as 300 million people in the 20th century alone—far more than all the wars of that century combined. The danger is that it could become a killer again.

In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that six previously unknown vials of freeze-dried variola, the smallpox virus, had been found in a cold-storage room at a research facility in Bethesda, Md. No one at the lab, which is used by the Food and Drug Administration, was exposed or fell ill. But the virus in the sealed vials, which likely had been sitting there for more than 50 years, was still viable and potentially infectious.

We believe other vials exist in other labs, and propose a market-based solution to help ensure that something worse—either accidental or as a form of terror—doesn’t happen next time.

The recent lab discovery raises two immediate questions. One is why the smallpox vials weren’t found years ago. Even more important is the question of how many other laboratories world-wide may still have samples of this deadly virus sitting in their storage freezers. Experienced microbiologists are often compulsive collectors and many are recipients of long-neglected and uncataloged collections of samples. Passed down from an earlier generation of researchers, the samples lie disregarded like so many old textbooks sitting in a dusty library basement. Unlike books, these old sample collections can be lethal. Fortunately, their current guardians may also provide the solution to this problem.

In 1980, three years after the disease had been eradicated, the World Health Organization urged all countries to either destroy their existing smallpox lab samples or send them to two high-security labs, one at the CDC in Atlanta, and one in Moscow. But the WHO did not have the ability or authority to independently verify that every country and laboratory complied with its request. Such was the concern that in 2011 the U.S. urged the WHO to ask every country to examine its laboratories and recertify that they retained no unauthorized samples of smallpox. Many governments objected, noting that there was no reason to repeat a certification done more than 30 years ago. The latest find—in a U.S. lab, no less—argues otherwise.

While the WHO has taken a government-based approach to eliminating the samples, a way is needed to reach out directly to laboratory directors and staff scientists who could ferret out those last remaining samples. We propose that an incentive program be created to buy back any smallpox samples that may have been inadvertently overlooked. It could be set up at an international institution with WHO oversight and with government or private foundation funding.

Because a mistake resulting in a virus release could cost many lives and potentially billions of dollars, we suggest buying back all samples of variola, of any vintage or source in the world, for between, say, $25,000 or $50,000 or even $100,000 for each confirmed sample.

Whether such a program is privately or publicly funded, this would not be the first pay-for-performance scheme to spur the removal of unwanted and potentially dangerous stockpiles from around the world. Gun buyback programs are the most well known, but outdated electronics, exotic fish and reptile pets have also been targeted for what is in effect surrender by their owners for a reward. These programs are generally successful when they are well funded and focused. Ours would be both.

There is little downside to this proposal. The cost could be low, as one hopes relatively few vials will be found. The details, including funding levels, oversight, and protection from people trying to game the system could be relatively easy to work out, with the CDC, for example, having responsibility for confirming and destroying any submitted samples. It would be a win-win-win for society, the public health community and the individual or laboratory that submits a found sample.

The risk of a global pandemic resulting from an inadvertent smallpox release—or the virus’s acquisition by terrorists—is low. But recent events show that it also is not a risk to be dismissed as negligible. Let’s find the lost and forgotten smallpox samples before they find us.

Dr. Bernard, a retired Public Health Service rear admiral, was a senior director for global health security in the Clinton administration and special assistant for biodefense policy to President George W. Bush. Dr. Coleman is a microbiologist and entrepreneur.

About biosecureblog

Colonel Randall Larsen, USAF (Ret) -CEO, WMD Center -former Executive Director, Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism -former chairman, Department of Military Strategy and Operations, National War College
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