TWN Info Service
on Health Issues (May 11/02)
Smallpox: Dealing with the possibility of stalemate
Even though the WHO Major Review on smallpox research
has concluded that there is no longer any essential public health purpose
for retaining smallpox virus stocks, the
If there is no resolution on smallpox at the 64th WHA, which begins next week, the operations of the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research would come under intense scrutiny, but this could be problematic for several reasons. In addition, the situation is likely to quickly result in the WHA again considering smallpox as a substantive item.
If a resolution is negotiated but the discussion held significant possibility of resulting in a final text that does not fix an irrevocable date for destruction, Member States should strongly consider stopping negotiation and walking away from such a weak resolution. It is preferable to avoid a new resolution that authorizes continued temporary retention of virus stocks because the present reasons for retention – the research programme – have been fulfilled.
In order to prevent such stalemate situations from coming about, proponents of smallpox destruction will need to come forward with well-crafted proposals to close the research programme and fix a date for virus destruction.
More information can be found at www.smallpoxbiosafety.org
With best wishes,
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Smallpox InfoBrief #4
by Edward Hammond for the
and smallpoxbiosafety.org, May 2011
Fourth in a series of short informational briefings on the
issue of destruction of smallpox virus stocks
Dealing with the possibility of stalemate
It’s no secret that the
Notwithstanding the reality that there is no longer any essential public health purpose for the smallpox stocks, meaning that the time to destroy them has certainly arrived, what would happen if at the end of 64th World Health Assembly (WHA) the US and Russia still refused to acknowledge this simple fact and still sought to block a resolution to fix a new destruction date and withdraw authorization for research? This InfoBrief considers that possibility and contemplates what it might mean for the future.
If there’s no resolution…
As of this date, no
A non-decision or mere taking note of the Secretariat’s
report by the WHA would result in smallpox stocks being retained for
no purpose. Prior resolutions authorizing continued temporary retention
(with no destruction date set) would remain controlling, and with no
new date for destruction set, the
This situation would cast a strong spotlight on the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research (ACVVR), the WHO technical committee that oversees smallpox research. The ACVVR would have to simultaneously manage the results of the Major Review, which identifies no essential public health purpose for retaining virus stocks, and contradictory requests by US and Russian researchers to conduct new experiments. The ACVVR is next scheduled to meet late this year, when it would face a politically and technically challenging situation.
Placing the ACVVR in this position would be a
matter of concern to developing countries. While criticism from
Member States in recent years has led to an improvement in the effectiveness
of ACVVR oversight of research, developed countries, particularly the
The WHO has also failed to eliminate conflicts
of interest from the ACVVR, whose members include Russian and
Another effect of the 64th WHA not adopting a resolution would likely be for the smallpox issue to very quickly return to the WHA for substantive consideration. Few, if any, countries would be satisfied with stocks being retained but not used. Nor is taking no action in response to the Major Review a satisfactory outcome. And if ACVVR were to approve new experiments, it would be questioned if these were essential for public health. These factors would likely prompt developing countries to quickly insist on another substantive discussion.
In sum, no resolution at the 64th WHA would likely have two short-term results: First, the operations of the ACVVR would come under intense scrutiny. Second, it is likely to quickly result in the WHA again considering variola as a substantive item.
If a resolution text is left on the table… It is also possible that negotiations on a text will not reach agreement prior to the closing of the WHA, and Member States will be faced with deciding how to proceed, for instance, by stopping negotiation, or establishing an intercessional negotiation group, or delaying decision until 2012.
It is crystal clear, however, that for many years at each point that the United States and Russia have been given any new mandate to continue to temporarily retain the virus stocks that this mandate has been abused, and that neither country has been willing to destroy the virus stocks when the mandate has been fulfilled (either a date or, at present, a research programme).
Therefore, if a resolution text under discussion
was strongly influenced by the
It is therefore preferable to avoid a new resolution
that authorizes any continued temporary retention of virus stocks because
the present reasons for retention – the research programme – have been
fulfilled. In other words, with the
The practical effect of walking away from a resolution
so as not to create any new pretext for virus retention would be to
In the heat of discussions it is very important for Member States to remember that even the best diplomatic efforts may not be worthwhile when negotiating with other parties who ultimately have no intention of agreeing to a new destruction date. Under those circumstances, Member States should bear in mind that their best option may be to simply stop negotiation on a weak resolution at the 64th WHA if it will not result in the setting of a new destruction date.
Such a stalemate, however, is a last resort rather that a desirable outcome. In order to prevent it from coming about, proponents of smallpox destruction will need to come forward with well-crafted proposals to close the research programme and fix a date for virus destruction. These will need to be defended through the sometimes contorted resolution process, including the merger of proposals with competing intents. While this can be a daunting prospect, proponents of prompt destruction can rest assured that both history and the weight of the scientific community, particularly those who eradicated smallpox from the wild, are squarely on their side.