Playing with Fire: Why the US Smallpox Research is Risky

Photo showing Smallpox.
Image: Focal Foto/Flickr

By Garrett Ehinger

Ghosts of pandemics past are coming back to haunt the world. Although declared “eradicated” by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1980 at great cost, government labs and research facilities are resurrecting a lethal virus.

Smallpox, or more specifically, a variant called Variola Major, has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in the past century alone. Between 65 and 85 percent of survivors are left permanently scarred and disfigured. And while it no longer rears its ugly head in the public conscience, smallpox is far from eradicated. 

Although natural occurrences of smallpox are nonexistent, the United States and the Soviet Union kept strategic reserves of the virus in secret stockpiles. When the Soviet Union crumbled, its cache vanished and was assumed to be in the hands of geopolitical rivals such as North Korea. The United States continues its smallpox research as a safety measure against future attacks. This precaution may seem obvious, but such research carries grave risks for national security.

Bio-weapons are effective when victims are unprepared, so if a smallpox attack were to occur, it would likely be with a novel version of the virus. With this in mind, the United States has been developing new forms of smallpox and corresponding vaccines in a preemptive attempt to protect against future attacks. 

This approach ignores that maintaining labs full of lethal smallpox variations is a catastrophe waiting to happen. It could also force rivals to proliferate their bio-weapon programs in response. To avoid this dangerous outcome, the United States should instead strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) while improving disease-tracing methods to give an added dimension of potential retaliation to U.S. deterrence. 

There remains an assumption that bio-weapons are off the table because they are difficult for nation-states to control, but this is not necessarily the case. The U.S. Department of State has found China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea all in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention. 

In asymmetrical or protracted war, malicious actors might see bio-weapons as a desirable option. Bio-weapons are difficult to trace to their source, so international backlash is less likely. Radar can detect incoming missiles, but biological weapons can be covertly deployed on food or doorknobs and secretly infect an unwitting tourist who will carry it back and infect their homeland. 

Once deployed, the state responsible for the bio-weapon will likely have easier access to the development and implementation of treatments since it developed the weapon in the first place. These make bio-weapons programs appealing to some states, especially to those whose nuclear programs struggle with international regulation. 

Fighting this appeal by encouraging bio-weapon non-proliferation is why various countries created the BWC. But in its present state, it is too weak to do so effectively. It lacks supervision, verifications, explicit terms, and more. Even though 183 states have joined the BWC, bio-weapons programs will likely persist unless member states strengthen the convention. 

The United States has repeatedly blocked critical verification policies for the BWC in the past. Verification methods have already been developed over decades of research by committees such as the UN’s Institute for Disarmament Research. If the United States wishes to mitigate the risks of biological warfare effectively, the next step is to attach these verifications to effective deterrents through the BWC.

Additionally, the United States should invest money in precise disease-tracing methods to identify the creators of a bio-weapon, limiting the allure of an anonymous biological attack. One example of a tracing technology is gene sequencing of synthetic viruses and matching genomic irregularities with known technologies. 

Tracing would allow the United States to identify the sort of genetic fingerprint with which countries made the hypothetical bio-weapon based on that country’s technological capabilities. The United States and the international community would then be able to retaliate using the means it deems necessary. By bringing bio-weapons into the light, states would begin reintroducing traditional deterrents like nuclear weapons to their risk calculations.

Strengthening the BWC or investing in disease tracing are just some of the solutions. There are other investments the U.S. government can make that negate the need for smallpox research, such as in vaccine-designing artificial intelligence programs, personal protective equipment technology, or research into the anti-viral properties of bacteriophages. 

For the safety of the American people and in the interest of bio-weapon non-proliferation, the United States should begin dismantling its hazardous approach to smallpox research and pivot to focus on safer and more practical strategies toward national health security.

Garrett Ehinger is an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University in Idaho, majoring in Biomedical Science. He was the Director of the China Lab at his university, a recipient of the EA UGAP stipend award, and has studied Chinese culture and history for over a decade.

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