Experts debate destroying last smallpox viruses

By Maria Cheng

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 13 2011 5:05 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this June 23, 1974 file photo a small Indian child displays the result of smallpox at Hakegora village in India. Smallpox, one of the world's deadliest diseases, eradicated three decades ago, is kept alive under tight security today in the United States and Russia. Many other countries say the world would be safer if those stockpiles of the virus were destroyed and now for the fifth time, at a World Health Organization meeting on May 16, 2011, they will push again for the virus' destruction but it seems their efforts will be futile as U.S. and Russian government officials say it is essential they keep some smallpox alive in case a future biological threat demands more tests with the virus.

Santosh Basak, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

LONDON — Smallpox, one of the world's deadliest diseases, eradicated three decades ago, is kept alive under tight security today in just two places — the United States and Russia.

Many other countries say the world would be safer if those stockpiles of the virus were destroyed.

Now for the fifth time, at a World Health Organization meeting next week, they will push again for the virus' destruction. And again it seems likely their efforts will be futile.

U.S. and Russian government officials say it is essential they keep some smallpox alive in case a future biological threat demands more tests with the virus. They also say the virus samples are still needed to develop experimental vaccines and drugs.

It was in 1996 that WHO's member countries first agreed smallpox should be destroyed. But they have repeatedly delayed a demand for destruction so that scientists could develop safer smallpox vaccines and drugs. That's now been done: There are two vaccines, a third in the works, and there are drugs for treating it, but not curing it.

Yet even if most of WHO's member countries vote to set a new date for destruction, the agency doesn't have the power to enforce the decision.

The scientific community remains divided over whether the smallpox samples should be destroyed. The respected journal Nature editorialized against it earlier this year, arguing that scientists need the ability to do further research, and perhaps develop new vaccines and treatments in an era of possible biological attack. However, one of the most prominent figures in wiping out the deadly, disfiguring disease is in favor of destroying all remnants of it.

"It would be an excellent idea to destroy the smallpox viruses," said Dr. Donald A. Henderson, who led WHO's eradication effort in the 1970s. "This is an organism to be greatly feared."

He says possession of smallpox by those not authorized to have it should be made a crime against humanity and that international authorities should prosecute any country found with it.

A report by independent researchers commissioned by WHO last year concluded there was no compelling scientific reason to hang onto the viruses. Yet other scientists contend the stockpiles could still provide valuable information in the future.

Smallpox is one of the most lethal diseases in history. For centuries, it killed about one-third of the people it infected, including Queen Mary II of England, and left most survivors with deep scars on their faces from the hideous pus-filled lesions. The last known case was in Britain in 1978 when a university photographer who worked above a lab handling smallpox died after being accidentally exposed to it from the building's air duct system.

Smallpox vaccines are made from vaccinia, a milder related virus. "We have many ways of looking at smallpox, including gene mapping, that means we don't need the actual (smallpox) virus," said Henderson, who is now with the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

American and Russian officials disagree.

Dr. Nils Daulaire, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Global Affairs, said the U.S. will again ask WHO to postpone a decision calling for the stockpile's destruction. He said U.S. scientists need more time to finish research into how well new vaccines and drugs work against the virus. But he acknowledged U.S. officials also want their own supply in case terrorists unleash smallpox as a biological weapon and additional study is needed.

A scientist at the Russian laboratory where smallpox is kept, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the virus should be kept in case similar ones pop up in the future and more studies are needed.

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