Smallpox Safe for Now
GENEVA--The World Health Organization's (WHO's) governing board agreed yesterday to delay destruction of the last known samples of smallpox, now kept on ice at two high-security facilities in Russia and the United States. The decision reflects a new consensus that the stocks may be needed to defend humanity against the possible use of smallpox as a bioweapon.
Smallpox was eradicated in 1980, and the stocks were slated for destruction in 1993, but two developments helped persuade the WHO to delay that order. A well-placed defector revealed that the Soviet Union had amassed tons of weaponized smallpox. And in the wake of the Gulf War, United Nations weapons inspectors reported that Iraq may have sought to weaponize smallpox through research on camelpox, a close cousin that does not harm humans.
The WHO board acted on a recommendation from Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, who based her decision on a report last month from a scientific advisory committee. In staying an execution scheduled for this December, the board handed a dramatic victory to researchers hoping to design drugs and a better vaccine. One intriguing development is a potential animal model for smallpox developed by virologist Peter Jahrling of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland, and his colleagues. The model could prove important for testing drugs and vaccines.
But some countries are troubled by an open-ended research effort. China, Cuba, and several other nations are expected to lobby hard for a deadline out of fear that an open-ended program increases the risk that terrorists could steal the virus or that the virus could escape in a lab accident. Observers speculate that the World Health Assembly could set a deadline of 2005 or 2006 to destroy the stocks when it meets in May.
The heightened concern about bioterrorism has led some health experts to question the central tenet that stocks of any microbial killer should be destroyed once it is eradicated in the wild. That reaction concerns Jonathan Tucker, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington, D.C. "The smallpox situation sets a troubling precedent for other infectious diseases, such as polio and measles," he says.