Blue whale, Gouldian finch, Smallpox particles

Image Credits: Blue whale and Gouldian finch: Wikimedia; Smallpox particles: CDC Public Health Image Library

You probably don’t need any convincing that the blue whale is worthy of conservation efforts. Or that the vibrant Gouldian finch, clinging to existence in small pockets of northern Australia, should be brought back from the brink of extinction. But could you be convinced that deadly viruses are worthy of conservation?

While it’s unlikely that endangered mammals or birds have ever posed a source of personal value to you, it’s still easy to accept that these species have some intrinsic value to the world. In acknowledgment of this value, the global community committed to conserve the world’s precious genetic resources in 1992, adopting the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD is one of the most widely ratified multilateral treaties, with 196 state parties signing on to conserve and sustainably use the components of biodiversity.

So we’re all agreed: whales and colorful finches comprise an important part of the world’s genetic diversity that we are not prepared to see lost to extinction. But what should be done with pathogenic genetic resources when their only apparent purpose is to hurt or kill us? Is, for instance, the smallpox virus worthy of our conservation efforts? To date, the implicit answer to this question has been “yes”!

Stocks of variola virus, the causative agent of smallpox, are currently being held in two high-security laboratories, one in Atlanta, USA and the other in Koltsovo, Russia. Since smallpox was declared eradicated from the human population in 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) has periodically debated the merits of destroying these stocks, and each time the decision has been postponed. In effect, we have been passively conserving variola virus for more than three decades!

Together, the USA and Russian repositories house more than 500 vials of viruses that are still being used in scientific experiments. Only some of these viruses have been genetically sequenced and the samples contain a wealth of genetic information that could ultimately be used to fend off future viral threats. And when it comes to smallpox, the greatest of those threats might well be bioterrorism.

Undeclared samples of variola virus could still be sitting in suspended animation in freezers around the world, and the virus could be weaponized by someone with relatively rudimentary laboratory skills. While this might sound like the premise for a fictional Hollywood blockbuster, this very real possibility was highlighted in July 2014 when scientists at the US National Institute of Health found six glass vials labelled ‘variola’ dating back to the 1950s in a laboratory freezer in Bethesda. Two of the samples were still viable.

The threat of bioterrorism has weakened the political will to destroy the last remaining (declared) stocks of smallpox virus. Through sheer reticence, it appears that the passive conservation of these virus samples will continue. But it might be time to consider whether pathogenic genetic resources are worthy of active, purposeful and very deliberate conservation efforts.

It is difficult to make the case that viruses have some intrinsic value to the world, particularly to anyone suffering from a viral head cold. It is much easier to make the anthropocentric case that they are valuable to human beings! Virus samples are required to develop and test vaccines and medicines, they have been a key tool in helping to describe how the human immune system works and they are currently being used as delivery vectors in cancer and gene therapies.

There is lots to learn from viruses, not least of all how we can best tackle them. The variola repositories are not simply 500 or so identical specimens. These viruses are genetically varied, unique samples that could reveal information about the emergence and evolution of the virus, its host-cell specificity, how the disease manifests in humans and the molecular basis for regulating the host immune response.

These viruses are a library of genetic information, an historical catalogue of our history with smallpox. And there are still portions of that library that scientists cannot yet understand! Theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler famously said “as the island of our knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance”. The more we learn about these viruses, the more we realise we have so much yet to discover!

We must seriously consider conserving pathogenic genetic resources, if not for us, then for future generations. This is precisely what the CBD aimed to do back in 1992. It was the global community’s way of insuring against our destructive short-term impulses and securing the world’s genetic resources for future generations. The treaty applies to all non-human genetic resources, not just the cool, cuddly and colorful ones.

In 2011, the cattle plague virus, rinderpest, was declared eradicated and as the world moves ever closer to declaring the eradication of polio virus, this issue is guaranteed to resurface. These viruses are more than just agents of disease; they are genetic libraries containing the information needed to combat those same diseases, and more! Just as nobody could justify destroying a library, there is little justification under international law for destroying these precious genetic resources.

This post was written by Michelle Rourke, visiting Fulbright Scholar from the Griffith Law School in Brisbane, Australia. Her article “Never Mind the Science, Here’s the Convention on Biological Diversity: Viral Sovereignty in the Smallpox Destruction Debate” was published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Law and Medicine.