Does a *disease* have a right to exist?

Ok I heard that smallpox has been eradicated, except for a labratory specimens in Russia, and one in the US. They are keeping those last strains around, under guard or something like that.

Question: Why dont they destroy it? I know that there have been arguments that it might be used for ‘research’ and such, but I also thought someone was actually arguing that it would be like exterminating a creature, and that is why they are keeping it alive.

Would the destruction of the last small pox samples be unethical – that it can grievously harm humans, does that justify its eradication?

By all means I wouldn’t cry about it, but are there any ethical issues – for argument’s sake if nothing else?

The samples they have are the only ones they know of. It’s a big earth.

Research is a very good argument. Smallpox went from a killer of millions to almost extinct. We could learn from studying the makeup of the germ, and see if our success could translate into wiping out other diseases…

Research may well be part of it.

More I think it is a bioweapon issue. Neither side wants to use it but the other side has it so they had better have some too. Just in case…

We don’t know everything there is to know about smallpox. If a smallpox-like disease arises from a similar bacterium and starts decimating the human population, you may be glad we kept it on hand as a model system.

I don’t have an ethical problem with making the smallpox bacterium extinct–I don’t think it deserves to live or anything. No population “deserves” to live: the environment permits it, or the population adapts, or it dies. But for our own sake we may want to keep it handy.

I think we can make better bioweapons anyway at this point, but I’m uncertain of that.

Do they need the germs in order to make the vaccines? If so, I’d want to keep an active or activatable sample just in cast the disease isn’t as gone as we think it is. I’d also want a stockpile of the vaccine. Sure, we could re-capture the germ (a virus, I’m assuming) and start making vaccine, but that would take time - time in which people would be dying.

Smallpox is caused by a member of the Poxviridae family, the virus Variola, it is not a bacterial disease.

Whether viruses are actually alive is a matter for debate, because they do not possess the cellular machinery to actually perform the functions of life themselves, to reproduce they need to hijack those from host cells.

It requires a human host for transmission in the wild, so it’s quite unlikely that it exists outside of a laboratory any more.

I was thinking about that but then realized if an outbreak were to re-occur they would just recapture and culture it.

Having some on hand in a lab doesn’t really get you much ahead of things. First they would capture whatever it is anyway just to figure what it is. After that they would work for a vaccine. Unless they are using the current samples to make vaccines and have a lot in storage you are no better off. You have to start manufacturing from the beginning either way.

IIRC, we are capable of manufacturing the virus from stored data. How much faster making more would be from a live sample I don’t know; personally, I think the risk of an accident or theft means we should destroy it.

I think if a potential outbreak was a real concern, they wouldn’t have stopped routinely vaccinating against it in 1972. About 1/3rd of Americans have never been vaccinated against it, after all.

Anyway, I don’t think it’s like killing an animal. Viruses aren’t “alive” the same way a cat or a plant are. I don’t feel any worse about the idea of their total destruction than I would putting out a fire.

Good answers, but if they were to finally destroy the last of it – assuming that was that – it still seems ‘strange’ to sort of ‘kill’ the virus. Once it’s gone, it never comes back.

Sort of like murdering murder . . . Not quite like stomping a beetle (they are many others), but once it’s gone, it’s gone.

That being said, since ethical issues don’t seem to be resolvable, I’m glad we have the luxury of not having to worry about it.

Well I am a jackass and should have looked that up. :frowning:

Someone correct me if I’m misremembering, but I thought I heard a couple years ago that smallpox was back and on the rise?

On edit: Wikipedia says it’s gone. I swear I remember hearing that about 2 or 3 years ago, though. Maybe it was polio or some other virus we thought was gone?

You’re wrong.

The last two cases were in 1978 in England, when staff were accidentally exposed in a lab, one of whom died.

ETA: Polio is back in a big way in Nigeria, thanks to muslim clerics claiming the vaccine was a US plot to sterilise the population.

There’s an old joke:

Q-What’s the diff between a pregnant woman and a light bulb?
A-You can unscrew a lightbulb.

I.e. if you wipe a disease off the planet by eradicating the last known lab samples, it’s gone and there’s no undoing that.

I/you/we just don’t know what we might learn from that last strain of a disease. Maybe it holds the key to curing AIDS or cancer or…? I assume that’s why they keep it around.

Here are some reasons to keep it alive:

Your definition of life includes viruses, and you hold eliminating a living species wrong.

You don’t want to preclude future researchers from gaining understanding by studying it.

You worry that it might be found to have some future utility.

You don’t want to be the one to break the necessarily continuous chain that keeps a species viable because you see that long continuous chain as a thing of beauty or significance or value in its own right (sort of like feeling an obligation to name your son Frederick Jones the 9th if you are Frederick Jones the 8th, or not wanting to move a round pebble that has spent thousands of years sitting on a rock ledge while the water polished the pebble and ledge to fit one another). It emphasizes a kind of reverence for things that have histories much longer than we individual people have.

You hold as a basic principle that humans should refrain from doing things with apparently permanent consequences, when there is an alternative that amounts to maintaining the option in what looks like a safe and manageable way. This could be paraphrased, “We should only be screwing things in the lightbulb category, if there are reasonable alternatives to screwing things in the pregnant woman category”. This emphasizes an imagination for all the important issues we might not have recognized or discovered.

Do you have a cite for this? I know that there are many complex molecules that can be manufactured, and tailoring existing life-forms happens routinely in the laboratory these days. But it’s still hard for me to swallow the idea that we can currently take, a sample of Vaccinia virus and manipulate it to produce Variola virus.

I agree that doing such with a virus will be where we’ll first be able to enter the realm of manufacturing species, but I need to be convinced that we’re there already.

It is very likely that there are more smallpox samples than the US and Russia have declared. How hard would it have been for North Korea, South Africa or Dr. Baker at the University of East Virginia to have kept illegal samples?

According to the wiki article, the World Health Organization reversed their position and said the stocks should not be destroyed, but not for any “viruses have rights too” or “we need it for vaccines in case it breaks out again somehow” reason. Rather, it was deemed useful for developing new vaccines, antiviral medications, and tests. So yes, it does seem that it would be useful in case of similar viruses or in case smallpox might make a comeback, but not in an emergency response, necessarily.

Some people are still vaccinated against smallpox, FWIW - looks like it’s mostly at-risk lab workers, and military personnel deployed to the Middle East.

I found a mention in Wikipedia, and another here of polio virus being synthesized from data; it’s " published RNA sequence". Judging from the description it’s probably not good enough to replace the live virus yet ( but that was in 2002 ). So I guess destroying the smallpox virus could be considered premature.

As a matter of interest, note that it wasn’t a matter of taking one virus and turning it into another as you suggested; but of making one from scratch.