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COMMENTARY: Threat of bioterrorism requires stock cultures

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Bioterrorism, as facilitated by the advancement and exploitation of technology, is a threat that looms over us constantly. It is a threat that is even more pervasive than terrorism in the traditional sense, as bioterrorists effectively weaponize pathogens with the intent of creating an epidemic or pandemic that can decimate populations before anybody is even aware they are at risk. 

Biological warfare is severely unethical in that it not only promotes undue suffering and death for masses of people, but it is very difficult for governments to counteract if they lack thorough research on the organism at use. Essentially, the best weapon to fight against bioterrorism is an extensive arsenal of biological research conducted by qualified scientists in sanctioned facilities. 

Currently, the United States enjoys a sanctioned institution, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that does the kind of research that is most useful in the plight against bioterrorism. The CDC is now confronted with the issue of whether to retain its remaining stock cultures containing the smallpox virus. It is my opinion that, in the face of bioterrorism, it is of utmost importance that the remaining stock cultures are not destroyed.

The variola virus, which is responsible for infecting people with smallpox, is an extremely virulent pathogen. In history, it was one of the most painful diseases to plague humankind until it was eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1980. Because of its uniquely powerful nature, the variola virus is helpful to the research of virus genomic information, the characterization of new antivirals, the evaluation of new vaccines and better ways to define disease pathogenesis. 

CDC officials, contest to the necessity of retaining the cultures and how there is still work to be done, saying “...we believe that 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.” The essay released by the officials also stressed how working with the live variola virus has greatly improved their abilities to diagnose, treat and prevent smallpox with diagnostic assays, antiviral drugs and vaccines like IMVAMUNE and Lc16m8, respectively. Clearly, the variola cultures are an invaluable resource for scientists who are working toward guarding the public against deadly orthopoxviruses. 

In consideration of the benefits of retaining the stock cultures, some may argue that there is no need to develop smallpox vaccines on the grounds that the virus has been eradicated since 1980. But, a result of technological advancements is that it is virtually impossible for a virus to be eradicated. Genome replication technology ensures that if someone has access to a virus’ genomic code, it is possible for them to replicate it infinitely. 

Recently, research conducted by virologist David Evans and his associate included a detailed account of how the scientists reassembled horsepox DNA to form a smallpox hybrid. This publication is concerning because it leaves the world vulnerable to people who intend to abuse the information and commit bioterrorism. It is careless acts like this that provide a reason to retain stock cultures for research, because in the case of a bioterrorist successfully replicating the smallpox genome and bringing it back into action, we would be much more prepared with the research under our belts. 

Moving past the fact that bioterrorists may exploit technology to bring the smallpox virus back into action, critics of culture retainment might also argue that the act of smallpox research is dangerous in itself. But, it has been found by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity that “...very few government-funded gain-of-function experiments posed a significant threat to public health,” which includes research on pathogens like influenza and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). 

To ensure safety in dealing with deadly pathogens, the National Institutes of Health, which provides grants for scientific research, will surveil research more closely than in the past. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services intends to thoroughly assess both the gain-of-function projects being conducted with government money and the scientists in charge of them under its new plan. 

Aside from the necessity of smallpox research and the risk that might accompany it, opponents of culture retainment might also point out how expensive it is for the government to fund pathogen research. But, in reality, it might be more expensive to forego conducting pathogen research than to deal with the consequences of doing so. 

“The human and economic costs of such public health emergencies vary, but they almost always exceed the cost of preventive action,” which rang true in the cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Ebola, which respectively cost $40 billion and $4.3 billion to deal with, while the costs of new vaccines are between $500 million to $1.8 billion. Regarding smallpox, an epidemic would surely cost the U.S. government billions, given the fact that the variola virus is highly contagious. Thus, it would be smart to take preventative measures now by conducting research, rather than paying exorbitant sums in the case of a re-emergence. 

In confronting the problem of whether the remaining stock cultures of smallpox should be destroyed, it is important to consider the benefits of keeping them. In researching the cultures, scientists might be able to make useful breakthroughs in vaccines, diagnostic methods and other areas. 

To cater to those who advocate for the destruction of cultures for safety or economic reasons, organizations and agencies of the government have stepped up their oversight capacities. As far as financial burdens are concerned, pathogen research and preventative measures are statistically less expensive than the cost of dealing with the consequences of no research or preventative measures. All things considered, it seems to me that the benefits of keeping smallpox cultures greatly outweigh any risks.

Anuska Lahiri is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in political science. 

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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