Why are highly contagious diseases kept in labs?

Pros and Cons of Keeping Disease Stockpiles
In 1999, the World Health Organization set a deadline for the United States and Russia to destroy their remaining stockpiles of smallpox, but as of yet they haven't complied.
In 1999, the World Health Organization set a deadline for the United States and Russia to destroy their remaining stockpiles of smallpox, but as of yet they haven't complied.
BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

From 2008 through 2012, more than 1,000 laboratory incidents occurred that posed a risk to humans or animals [source: Young]. Many of these reported incidents were minor, but some were serious enough that lab workers needed medical attention. Because of bioterrorism laws, the names and locations of labs weren't released, but USA Today obtained incident reports from the CDC. The accidents included ones in which workers and animals were inadvertently infected, in some cases with bacteria and viruses that can have serious complications. The lab workers recovered, and any infected animals were euthanized. In some cases, labs were fined and their research suspended.

In June 2014, at least 75 people at the CDC in Atlanta faced potential exposure to the deadly anthrax virus [source: Mohney and Besser]. Lab workers were moving live samples to another lab while not wearing full personal protective gear. They were informed the virus had been inactivated, but that turned out to be wrong. Virus spores could have escaped into the air and been inhaled at any point during this process. All exposed employees were offered vaccinations, treatment and health monitoring by the CDC. As of this writing, none of them have exhibited symptoms.

Anthrax is one thing, but why do we keep diseases that have already been eradicated, such as smallpox, in stock?

The last known case of smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977, and because of a worldwide vaccination effort, WHO declared the disease eradicated in 1980 [source: Salzberg]. However, one lab in the United States and one lab in Russia still have stocks of the virus.

Scientists at both labs say we need to keep the virus in case of a bioterrorism attack, in order to quickly develop and distribute vaccines. However, the WHO believes it's unsafe to keep this virus. If the smallpox virus gets out, it could cause a devastating outbreak, as people are no longer vaccinated against it.

In 1999, WHO set a deadline for the United States and Russia to destroy their remaining stockpile of smallpox, but they haven't complied [source: Salzberg]. Some experts believe we have enough data and DNA information to develop vaccines without needing the live virus and continue to campaign for the remaining stockpiles of smallpox to be destroyed [source: Stein].

Pros and cons exist for keeping live strains of infectious diseases in labs. On one hand, keeping these viruses helps save lives through research and worldwide surveillance. On the other, many believe that means we're one accident away from a doomsday scenario.

Related Articles


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "A CDC Framework for Preventing Infectious Diseases." October 2011. (Sept. 23, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/oid/docs/ID-Framework.pdf
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Infectious Diseases Pathology Branch (IDPB)." Jan. 18, 2013. (Sept. 23, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/ncezid/dhcpp/idpb/at-work/index.html
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Investigating Unexplained Illness & Death." Dec. 7, 2012. (Sept. 23, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/ncezid/dhcpp/idpb/unexplained-deaths/index.html
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Laboratory Safety at CDC." Aug. 15, 2014. (Sept. 23, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/about/lab-safety/
  • Mohney, Gillian and Richard Besser. "75 Potentially Exposed to Anthrax in CDC Breach." June 19, 2014. (Sept. 23, 2014) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/75-potentially-exposed-anthrax-cdc-breach/story?id=24218884
  • Salzberg, Steven. "It's time to destroy the U.S. smallpox reserves." Forbes. March 13, 2011. (Sept. 23, 2014) http://www.forbes.com/sites/sciencebiz/2011/03/13/its-time-to-destroy-the-u-s-smallpox-reserves/
  • Stein, Rob. "Should last remaining known smallpox virus die?" The Washington Post. March 8, 2011. (Sept. 23, 2014) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/08/AR2011030802087.html
  • World Health Organization. "Global infectious disease surveillance." 2014. (Sept. 23, 2014) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs200/en/
  • Young, Alison. "Hundreds of bioterror lab mishaps cloaked in secrecy." USA Today. Aug. 17, 2014. (Sept. 23, 2014) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/17/reports-of-incidents-at-bioterror-select-agent-labs/14140483/

More to Explore