Key U.S. Scientist Pushes to Hang Onto Last Remaining Smallpox Virus

A health worker vaccinates a child against smallpox, circa 1962, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A U.S. scientist is advising against destroying the world's final known stocks of smallpox, which was eradicated from nature in the 1970s.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
May 2, 2014, 4:01 a.m.

A U.S. sci­ent­ist has ad­vised against elim­in­at­ing the world’s last known stocks of small­pox, just weeks be­fore na­tions are set to re­con­sider de­struc­tion.

“The re­search agenda with live [small­pox] vir­us is not yet fin­ished,” In­ger Da­mon, who over­sees stud­ies of the agent at the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion in At­lanta, said in a newly pub­lished art­icle co-au­thored with two oth­er sci­ent­ists.

Da­mon, who heads the agency’s Poxvir­us and Ra­bies Branch, and her col­leagues ar­gue that re­lated agents can­not al­ways sub­sti­tute for live small­pox vir­us in lab ex­per­i­ments to quickly de­tect and con­tain the his­tor­ic­al scourge, should it re-emerge.

A glob­al erad­ic­a­tion cam­paign wiped out small­pox from nature in the 1970s. However, the United States and oth­er coun­tries have spent dec­ades de­vel­op­ing new vac­cines and drugs in case the agent is re­leased from a secret stock­pile, or as­sembled from scratch us­ing emer­ging tech­no­lo­gies.

In an in­ter­view with Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, Da­mon ad­vised that state par­ti­cipants in the World Health As­sembly — the top de­lib­er­at­ive body of the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion — again delay set­ting any dead­line for des­troy­ing the fi­nal known sup­plies of small­pox vir­us. The re­main­ing caches are held at CDC headquar­ters and at a state labor­at­ory in Rus­sia.

“We can’t pre­dict what the res­ults of the next “¦ ex­per­i­ments are go­ing to be,” she said by tele­phone on Wed­nes­day. “If we could do that, we could give a dis­tinct and a defin­it­ive [de­struc­tion] timeline.”

Her art­icle — writ­ten jointly with Clarissa Dam­aso of Brazil’s Fed­er­al Uni­versity of Rio de Janeiro and Grant Mc­Fad­den of the Uni­versity of Flor­ida — makes the case that fur­ther re­search with live vir­us is “vi­tal” to de­vel­op­ing safer vac­cines, fully li­censed drugs, and faster de­tec­tion strategies.

Speak­ing to GSN, Da­mon said the art­icle does not in­dic­ate what po­s­i­tion the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion will take at the World Health As­sembly’s May 19-24 meet­ing.

She ex­pressed hope, though, that her piece “will be im­port­ant in in­form­ing the of­fi­cial U.S. stance.”

Rus­sia and the United States suc­cess­fully pushed in 2011 to delay any con­sid­er­a­tion of a de­struc­tion dead­line un­til this year. That ex­ten­ded a series of post­pone­ments ever since a WHO ad­vis­ory com­mit­tee in 1990 re­com­men­ded des­troy­ing the re­main­ing vir­us.

Ad­visers to the glob­al health agency reached gen­er­al agree­ment in Septem­ber that live vir­us stocks “need no longer be re­tained for fur­ther es­sen­tial re­search.” Its con­clu­sions were echoed two months later by an in­de­pend­ent pan­el of ex­perts con­vened to ex­am­ine re­cent de­vel­op­ments in small­pox stud­ies.

Speak­ing to GSN on Tues­day, epi­demi­olo­gist Don­ald Hende­r­son ar­gued in fa­vor of des­troy­ing the re­main­ing vir­us stocks. He re­com­men­ded fo­cus­ing on en­sur­ing ad­equate in­ter­na­tion­al sup­plies of older, less ex­pens­ive vac­cine in­stead of pur­su­ing fur­ther re­search with live vir­us.

“We’ve had a couple of stabs at try­ing to de­vel­op these products as called for by the [United States] way back when, and it hasn’t worked,” said Hende­r­son, who headed the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion’s glob­al small­pox erad­ic­a­tion pro­gram in the 1960s and 1970s.

“If it comes to a ma­jor­ity vote in the World Health As­sembly, which it’s al­most come to sev­er­al times, I think the over­whelm­ing de­sire will be to des­troy,” Hende­r­son said.

Hende­r­son and Isao Ar­ita, an­oth­er former lead­er of the WHO small­pox erad­ic­a­tion ef­fort, wrote in an April journ­al art­icle that “lo­gic dic­tates an early date” for the agent’s de­struc­tion.

Re­tain­ing the stock­piles in­def­in­itely, Hende­r­son told GSN, could con­trib­ute to in­ter­na­tion­al sus­pi­cion that Wash­ing­ton and Mo­scow want the vir­us as a “de­terrent” that they may choose to weapon­ize.

The vir­us ori­gin­ated early in hu­man his­tory, and is be­lieved to have killed 300 mil­lion people between 1900 and its elim­in­a­tion from the en­vir­on­ment.

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