What research is being done concerning smallpox?
Research relating to the variola virus is ongoing even though smallpox is considered eradicated. It is felt that there is still much to learn and understand regarding the mechanisms of the virus and how it precisely infects the cells of the body, as well as the subsequent immune responses it evokes.
The main reasons further understanding is deemed necessary relates to the establishment of creating safer ‘next-generation’ vaccines, developing more effective antiviral medications specifically for smallpox treatment (to aid in preventing symptom complications and potentially provide a cure for the disease) and improving diagnostic testing for more rapid variola virus detection (especially in emergency situations – i.e. during an outbreak).
The challenge in producing a safer vaccine is that manufacturers cannot currently use it in an environment where there are widespread smallpox infections. Researchers thus have to implement more indirect methods using willing human participants who receive vaccinations and agree to supply blood samples for analysis. Antibodies (serum) are separated from the provided samples and then tested against VARV in the laboratory to see if individuals would likely be immune. Animal studies also form part of ongoing research as a way to gauge how a newly developed vaccine may respond in human beings.
Any and all research that is conducted is overseen by the WHO (specifically the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research). The virus for research purposes is sourced from CDC stockpiles (stored in Atlanta, Georgia - USA and Koltsovo, Russia) which consist of isolates from both major and minor VARV forms.