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Death row - WHO style

May 24, 2011 - Deb Gau
I just saw a strange little NPR brief in my Twitter feed this morning. The smallpox virus, which is now extinct in the wild and only exists in storage in medical labs, has been given a three-year pardon by the World Health Organization.

To sum up the article, there is disagreement around the world over whether the last remaining stocks of the virus in the U.S. and Russia should be destroyed. The labs that have the virus want to keep it to help develop better vaccines. (Vaccines for what, exactly, the article doesn't say.) On the other hand, developing countries say they would be hardest hit if the smallpox ever escapes, and want it eradicated. So the World Health Assembly said it will put off making a decision until 2014.

Debate aside, it's so weird to hear a virus discussed like it's an endangered species in captivity. The fact that we're arguing over how soon to kill it is also strange. You can bet that if smallpox were something cuddlier and altogether less deadly, like say, a dodo, we'd be doing everything we could to breed it instead.

(Postscript for all my science teachers: I know viruses aren't technically "alive" in the same way animals are, so the "Death Row" joke in my headline doesn't really work. But it was the best I could come up with.)


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