About 30km southeast of Novosibirsk in Siberia, Russia, several dozen concrete buildings have been erected outside the town of Koltsovo. The settlement is ringed with triple rows of barbed wire fences. Video cameras and motion sensors monitor any activity near the wires, while soldiers from an elite Russian army unit patrol its perimeter.
This is Russia’s State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology — or Vector, as it is usually known. Frozen in winter, when temperatures plunge below minus-30°C, and then scorched in summer, when the heat routinely rises above 30°C, the place is as unwelcoming as you could imagine. Given its name, location and a high-security protection, Vector would make an ideal setting for a James Bond movie.
This would be a fitting accolade, for Vector contains a number of unsettling scientific secrets, with the most sinister being housed in bio-containment laboratory P-4, in Building 6. Here a small storage plant, chilled by liquid nitrogen, holds vials of one of the deadliest pathogens known to medical science: the smallpox virus.
Smallpox killed the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses V in 1145BC and Tsar Peter II of Russia in 1730 and was responsible for an estimated 300 million to 500 million deaths in the 20th century alone; only in 1980 was it declared eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO) following a series of global vaccination programs. However, smallpox — with its once dreaded symptoms of blistered skin, lesions, delirium and fever — does survive in two places on Earth: at Vector and at another high-security laboratory, at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.
At the Russian and US units, scientists have continued to study the smallpox virus for the past decade. However, these last repositories are now under threat. In May, the World Health Assembly (WHA) — the decision-making body of the WHO — will be asked to set a date by which these collections should be destroyed. If agreed, the move would result in the extinction of one of the deadliest ailments to have afflicted our species.
Previous assemblies have delayed moves to have these last smallpox stocks destroyed. Nevertheless, it is expected that a decision will be taken this time: either to eradicate the virus or to save it.
The issue may seem straightforward: Why should humanity keep vials of a deadly virus that it went to such pains to eradicate and which could trigger a horrific epidemic in the event of an accidental release? This point is stressed by the many doctors and scientists who back the call for the vials’ destruction. It is time to wipe this scourge from our planet, they say.
Such views are not shared by all scientists, however. An opposing group claims that disposal of the CDC and Vector’s smallpox stocks would be a disaster, saying that the world needs these samples in order to develop new drugs against the disease should it one day reappear, either -accidentally or intentionally. Those stocks could be our savior, they claim. The WHA vote is going to trigger an intense scientific battle.
A detailed look at both sides is illuminating, starting with those researchers — including many senior scientists and defense officials in Russia and the US — who say it would be a calamity if the smallpox pathogen was destroyed. These virus supporters, who are known as “retentionists,” say there is a strong prospect that smallpox samples may already have been obtained by terrorist groups and that the Vector and CDC stocks will therefore be needed to help defend the world from bio-terror attacks. To back this point, the Russians say Iran made several attempts in the 1990s to recruit some of their Vector scientists — efforts that may have been successful in a couple of instances.