Ahead of a major global public health meeting this month, a number of experts are urging Washington and Moscow to destroy their smallpox samples.
The health ministers of countries belonging to the World Health Organization are slated to debate in Geneva, Switzerland, whether the United States and Russia should be called on to eliminate their strains of the live variola virus. U.S. officials argue that the samples should be retained to permit more research on improved smallpox countermeasures. But some outside experts say the material is too dangerous to warrant continued retention, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.
The World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization, has repeatedly delayed establishing a date for when the smallpox strains — the last known remaining samples in the world of the deadly virus — should be destroyed. Enhanced versions of the smallpox vaccine are currently being stockpiled. Meanwhile, two antiviral medications for the virus are under development.
“We believe that the smallpox research program is effectively complete and the case for destruction is stronger than ever,” said Lim Li Ching, a biosafety expert associated with the Third World Network, which advocates for destroying the smallpox strains in a two-year timeframe.
D.A. Henderson, who previously headed the successful WHO campaign to eradicate smallpox from nature, told AP that retaining live samples is no longer scientifically warranted as the virus’ genetic code is already known.
“Let’s destroy the virus and be done with it,” Henderson said. “We would be better off spending our money in better ways” such as on developing enhanced countermeasures for combating other disease agents that could be used as biological weapons.
Through synthetic biology, the smallpox virus could be manufactured in a laboratory if necessary in order to develop new medical countermeasures, experts say. However, the same technology could be misused by bad actors looking to acquire smallpox for use in an act of biological terrorism.
“Synthetic biology adds a new wrinkle to it,” U.S. Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs Jimmy Kolker said in an interview. “We now aren’t as sure that our countermeasures are going to be as effective as we’d thought even five years ago.”