TWN Info Service on Health Issues (May10/03)
5 May 2010
Third World Network

Dear Friends and colleagues,

RE: Update on smallpox virus destruction

In 2005, the World Health Assembly (WHA) debate on destruction of smallpox (variola) virus stocks heard governments responding with concern to US plans to genetically engineer the extremely dangerous virus. Smallpox is eradicated from nature and solely exists at World Health Organization (WHO) Repository Laboratories in the US and Russia.

The discussion culminated in 2007 with a WHA resolution that states that any research undertaken should not involve genetic engineering of the variola virus. This includes genetic engineering of the smallpox virus itself, and of other viruses with smallpox genes.

Nonetheless, dangerous research involving smallpox virus has continued, despite repeated (and unimplemented) WHA resolutions that the virus should be destroyed.

The virus was originally to be destroyed in 1999; but to date Russia and the US have refused to do so, resulting in subsequent WHA resolutions authorizing “temporary retention” of the virus until a new destruction date is set.

In parallel and with the purpose of fixing a new date for virus destruction, the WHO is currently conducting a “major review” of variola virus research for presentation to the 64th WHA in 2011. While fixing a date for destruction of virus stocks is the obvious priority for the 64th WHA, however, action on the major review in 2011 does not preclude steps in the interim to facilitate the 2011 debate, including points to be raised and action to be taken at the 63rd WHA, which meets from 17-21 May 2010.

Please find attached a Third World Network paper, which provides an update on ongoing variola virus research projects, the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research (VAC, for Variola Advisory Committee), and a critique of the findings of a US Institute of Medicine committee that elaborated on alleged future needs for live variola virus. The key recommendations of the TWN paper are also reproduced below.

With best wishes,

Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister,
10400 Penang,
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TWN Update on Smallpox (Variola) Virus Destruction
Prepared for the 63rd World Health Assembly, May 2010

Conclusions and Recommendations (Excerpt)
Fixing a date for destruction of virus stocks is the obvious priority for the 64th WHA, however, action on the major review in 2011 does not preclude steps in the interim to facilitate the 2011 debate.

Items that Member States may wish to underscore in 2010 include:

•     The urgency of fixing a specific and prompt destruction date for remaining virus stocks, even if voting is required, and the necessity of following through on that commitment.

•     The need for WHA to explicitly withdraw its authorization for continued temporary retention of virus stocks for purposes for which the virus is no longer required. The first, and easiest, of these are sequencing and diagnostics, which the VAC has repeatedly concluded no longer require variola virus. These can be followed by vaccines, the animal model, and antivirals.

•     So-called “discovery research” and exploitation of new genetic techniques (“functional genomics”) per se is not and has never been authorized by WHA and is not essential to public health.

•     The WHA has never authorized open-ended, ad infinitum variola virus research. Rather, the WHA has only authorized research in specific areas that is essential to public health, and only in the temporary period before destruction of virus stocks.

Further to this point: WHA has not authorized ongoing research in areas where essential public health needs have been met (e.g. sequencing and diagnostics, and vaccines), nor has it authorized continued use of variola virus in projects that fail to produce significant public health benefits (animal model), nor has WHA authorized research where cost-benefit and risk analysis from a public health perspective shows that further use of variola virus is not essential (antivirals).

•     Recent scientific developments in DNA synthesis heighten the urgency of destruction of variola virus stocks and highlight the need for WHA to strengthen its control with additional restrictions specific to synthetic variola DNA.

•     Request the Director-General to increase her efforts to reform the VAC (per WHA 60.1), particularly to implement transparency of the VAC scientific subcommittee, eliminate conflicts of interest in VAC membership, and ensure more balanced attendance of its meetings by members and advisors.

    •       Request the Director-General to increase transparency of the major review of variola virus research underway by releasing the membership of the independent committee and reports of its meetings, so that it may be ensured that the independent committee is free of conflicts of interest, geographically balanced, and incorporates broad public health interests.

Briefing Paper 1