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Smallpox virus gets stay of execution
May 25th, 2011
04:37 PM ET

Smallpox virus gets stay of execution

The World Health Assembly decided this week to give researchers three more years to study the smallpox virus before talking about destroying existing live samples.  This is the fifth delay; the decision to destroy the known stockpiles of the variola virus, which causes smallpox, was first put forth in 1996.

Health officials from 192 countries have been meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, since May 16 to discuss a multitude of health issues. The debate over the destruction of the smallpox virus began last Friday and continued on Monday,  but two camps – one for and one against the destruction of these smallpox virus samples – emerged again.

But according to the head of the U.S. delegation, Dr. Nils Daulaire, support for preserving the virus came from countries who in previous years had called for the destruction of the smallpox stocks. Daulaire,  director of the Office of Global Health Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, tells CNN that the resolution calling for more time to research this virus had 27 co-sponsors. Most resolutions that go through the Health Assembly have somewhere between 3 and 10 sponsors, he said.

The majority of countries who supported the U.S. and Russian position this time were from the developing world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Daulaire said. He calls this a "sea change," which is reflected in the reality that many countries are aware of the potential rise in bioterror threats and natural biologic threats including monkeypox, which comes from the same group of viruses as smallpox.

Iran was most vocal against the U.S. resolution for preserving  the existing virus – at least for now.  According to Daulaire, Iran's fundamental problem with the resolution was that it called for all nations to actually tell the WHO that they no longer have any virus (outside the WHO approved sites in the U.S. and Russia).  "There has never been a requirement for countries to attest that they do not have smallpox," says Daulaire, they've only been "urged" to turn over any remaining smallpox virus, mainly back in 1980, when the WHO declared the disease was eradicated.

So the Health Assembly,which traditionally prefers consensus, decided on Tuesday to reaffirm "the decision of previous assemblies that the remaining stock of smallpox (variola) virus should be destroyed when crucial research based on the virus has been completed," according to a WHO press release.

So the decision about the destruction of the known smallpox virus stockpiles in the United States and Russia has been put off until May 2014.  At that time the group will review whether all the crucial research on the live variola virus has been completed, a WHO official tells CNN.  If it has, then the assembly will proceed to discuss when to set a date for destroying the virus.  Daulaire says science, not a bunch of bureaucrats will determine if enough research has been done.

So researchers who have access to this virus have at least three more years to continue their research before the debate begins again.

Smallpox has been described as one of the world's worst diseases.  It killed nearly half a billion people in the 20th century alone.


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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Kevin

    It would be great if there were a way to guarantee that everyone who had samples of live virus would destroy it. The mechanisms for guaranteeing Russia destroyed all of their's, or anyone else are simply not effective. Any country possessing the live stuff could easily hide it or just deny inspectors access, just like some nations do with nuclear weapons.

    May 26, 2011 at 10:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Chris

    I think it is crazy to think that we have "eradicated" the virus. There is no way to know that it isn't somewhere in a jungle just waiting for us to pass by. To destroy samples of something that we can research and find cures / antibiotics for would be as stupid as destroying every evidence of how to make an ice box like we used 100 years ago. Knowledge and the accessability to it are priceless.

    May 26, 2011 at 11:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Shano

      You mean there are are some people who are infected with the virus and are hiding in a jungle?
      You should realize that the success of eradicating variola depended on the fact that it is carrier exclusively by humans. There is no other reservoir of it in nature.

      May 26, 2011 at 16:24 | Report abuse |
    • pstroh

      No, we need to properly secure and retain this virus. My daughter in the military recently deployed to the Middle East and was given, among other things, a small pox vaccine. She described exactly the same administration, wound and scab I experienced as a child. This is a moot point.

      May 26, 2011 at 18:31 | Report abuse |
  3. Pat

    The US, Russia, China, et al, will NOT be destroying their stockpiles of the virus.
    The longer the general population is not exposed/immunized, the greater the potential military value of the virus.
    Compared to nukes, smallpox is much easier to produce/deploy, much higher casualty volume, less damage to asset-base.
    Smallpox will rage across the human landscape once again someday, it is as inevitable as war itself.

    May 26, 2011 at 12:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fearfighter1

      True..so very true. The real fear is if they make a super small pox virus with no way to immunize against.. That will be our judgement day if Ebola does not get out first.. We play with fire and call it research....Hope we don't get burned.

      May 26, 2011 at 20:35 | Report abuse |
  4. James

    Remember how the U.S. Army used smallpox infested blankets to to kill millions of American Indians? The Military/Industrial complex doesn't want the smallpox virus destroyed so they can use it as a weapon. Since not many people are vaccinated today, against smallpox, this would be an ideal weapon to destroy millions of people who would otherwise try to defend themselves. I wouldn't trust anyone who says they destroyed their stockpiles. Especially a country that actually used it as a weapon, The United States. That goes for Nuclear weapons too. Who used an atomic bomb as a weapon first? The United States.

    May 26, 2011 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • uhuhreally

      You should probably check your historical facts before making such salacious accusations by quoting a single discredited activist professor in academia. Yes the U.S. Army relocated Native Peoples of North America in the 19th century, but it was under the orders of the U.S. Government. Expecting the Military to disobey the Government is paramount to treason and civil war. Name your poison...

      May 26, 2011 at 14:58 | Report abuse |
  5. Nikki

    Chris – variola virus has no natural animal reservoir (one of the reasons that it was able to be irradicated), so there is nothing lurking in the jungle carrying the virus. Additionally, as smallpox is caused by a virus, antibiodics are not effective. While variola virus might be destroyed, no one is calling for the distruction of vaccinia virus (the virus strain that was used as the vaccine and the virus most researchers today use instead – since most of us don't have access to the variola virus), so research could still continue.

    May 26, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Heywood_Jablowme

    We all know that the CDC (US) and Vector labs (Russia) have copies of Smallpox for research (some might say weaponization). To think that if the WHO destroys their copies of the virus that the virus will be eradicated is sheer folly.

    May 26, 2011 at 14:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Tim

    Some evil people of power will have this stored in some facility...if we destroy our samples, those evils will airborne in and we will lose millions trying to eracdicate it because we dont have the sample anymore....One sample One trusted for the people of the world location (hence the problem).....keep it for the fight against it.. Deffense is the best Offense.

    May 26, 2011 at 17:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Rick

    There is a perfectly good reason to keep some samples of the virus. Today the tuberculosis bacteria is used to combat the effects of bladder cancer, something that could not have been envisioned twenty years ago. What if we had been in a position to destroy all TB then and decided to? The fact of the matter is that any living organism may prove to have some unknowable use in the future. Keep it around in a controlled environment.

    May 26, 2011 at 20:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. opinionguru

    Virii do not need live hosts to lie dormant. They are unlike any other 'life' on this planet. Destroying our stockpiles would be the equivalent of destroying our only means of doing research.

    May 26, 2011 at 21:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. mx

    Can't the virus be recreated from its DNA sequence?

    May 27, 2011 at 08:45 | Report abuse | Reply

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