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October 21, 1988

At Start of Second Smallpox-Free Decade, Debate Continues About Keeping Virus

Author Affiliations

(Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill)

(Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill)

JAMA. 1988;260(15):2172. doi:10.1001/jama.1988.03410150020004

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THE LAST CASE of smallpox was reported ten years ago, but the debate continues whether to maintain samples of the live virus.

A year after the last-known case was reported, the World Health Organization (WHO)—in 1979—officially declared the disease eradicated. Several research facilities around the world then stored frozen samples for possible further viral studies. Today, only two sites continue to store the virus—the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Atlanta, and the Research Institute of Viral Preparations, Moscow.

Only Two Places?  In fact, since it is "very unlikely that any viable smallpox virus exists anywhere else in the world," according to Kenneth Herrmann, MD, acting director of the CDC's Division of Viral Diseases, the question increasingly asked is: Why store this virus at all?Looking at the most unpleasant possibility, Australia's Frank Fenner, MD, former chair of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication, writes in the WHO's