Some Experts Urge Eradication of U.S., Russian Smallpox Stocks

May 5, 2014, 9:06 a.m.

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.”

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