TWN Info Service on Health Issues (May 11/03)
11 May 2011
Third World Network

It's time to destroy the smallpox virus stocks

As the 64th World Health Assembly approaches, global interest is turning again to the issue of destruction of smallpox (variola) virus stocks. While smallpox is eradicated in the wild, live virus stocks are held in two WHO repositories in the United States and Russia

The 64th WHA meets from 16-24 May 2011, where it is meant to consider the results of a major review of smallpox research. The outcome of the major review, which found no compelling scientific reason to continue to retain the virus, provides the 64th WHA with clear justification to terminate research involving live smallpox virus and to schedule the prompt destruction of remaining stocks. 

In February 2011, an editorial in the journal Vaccine asked, 'Why not destroy the remaining virus stocks?'. The editorial was written by J. Michael Lane, former head of the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) smallpox eradication programme, and Gregory A. Poland, Editor-in-Chief of Vaccine. (The CDC is the WHO repository for smallpox stocks in the US). 

In commenting on the scientific issues, they say, "Thus, despite the fact that prestigious groups have identified research that requires use of live smallpox virus, what little is necessary can be done or approximated using vaccinia, monkeypox, or partial fragments of the smallpox genome. These...  suggest that retention of the live viral stocks is unnecessary, and represents an unnecessary risk to mankind". They conclude, "It is time to destroy our remaining smallpox virus stocks, call upon the rest of the world to do the same, and make possession of the virus an international crime against humanity. We find no evidence to compel us to do otherwise."

Please find below two press articles calling for the stocks to be destroyed. More information and analysis on the smallpox issue can be found at

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A pox on the keepers of a killer virus

Ben Macintyre
The Australia
April 28, 2011

SMALLPOX was the nastiest thing nature did to humanity.

A disease unique to humans, the variola virus killed between 300 and 500 million people in the 20th century alone, more than three times the number killed in war. Infection caused high fever, racking headaches, pustulating skin ulcers, blindness, permanent disfigurement and, in about one-third of cases, death.

In 1967, the disease was still killing two million people a year.

And then it was gone. Through an 11-year global campaign of inoculation (or "variolation", as it once was) smallpox was vanquished, the first and only disease to be defeated by human ingenuity. The last naturally occurring case was recorded in Somalia in 1977. In 1980 the World Health Organisation announced the official eradication of smallpox.

Yet the disease survives still, inside two high-security laboratories in Russia and the US, a grim and potentially catastrophic hangover from the Cold War. The State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, known by the appropriately James Bond name of Vector, has 120 remaining vials of the smallpox virus, frozen in liquid nitrogen, in a concrete containment plant surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. The Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta has 451 samples, similarly guarded.

Next month, WHO will vote on whether to destroy these remaining stocks. The issue deeply divides the scientific community. What some see as a chance to liberate the planet from a horrible disease, others see as an invitation to terrorism, possibly leading to the resurgence of smallpox, and a spectacular scientific own goal.

The argument against destruction has changed little since 1986, when WHO first recommended the total destruction of the remaining live smallpox stocks: somewhere in the world someone may hold a stock of smallpox, waiting to unleash the disease. Because vaccination ceased after the eradication program, about 40 per cent of the world's population now has no immunity to smallpox. The "retentionists" say destroying the virus would leave the world vulnerable to such an attack, as the remaining samples could be used to research antiviral agents, develop diagnostic tests and forge next-generation vaccines.

This argument rests more on fear (and politics) than science. The virus has been studied for more than four decades and many scientists doubt any more information can be gleaned from research into the retained stocks: the genome is known, the genetics of 49 strains of the virus have been catalogued and two antiviral agents are in development.

A WHO panel concluded last year that retaining stocks served no public health purpose. Research has already provided the world with a vast scientific arsenal to respond to an outbreak of smallpox. By destroying the last stocks, the world would be drawing a clear legal distinction: anyone in possession of the virus after that date would be guilty of a crime against humanity.

The greatest danger of an outbreak comes not from al-Qa'ida (which almost certainly does not have the virus) but from an accident at the labs in Atlanta or Koltsovo (which most certainly do).

The stocks of the pathogen may already be scientific anachronisms. Using the latest DNA technology, scientists could potentially recreate the virus at will, using synthesised nucleic acids.

The US and Russian desire to retain smallpox stocks seems at least partly symbolic, a toxic microbial arms race in which neither side is willing to back down. Destroying the last stocks would be a significant act of mutual biological disarmament.

The Times


It's time to destroy the U.S. smallpox reserves

Steven Salzberg
Forbes (Science Business)
March 13, 2011

The eradication of smallpox was possibly the greatest victory of science over disease in the history of mankind. Thanks to a determined, worldwide vaccination effort, led by the World Health Organization, the last known human smallpox case occurred over 30 years ago, in Somalia in 1977. The WHO declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.

But smallpox isnít completely gone. Thatís because two large government laboratories, one in the U.S. and one in Russia, insist on maintaining stocks of the smallpox virus (called variola). In the U.S., the smallpox virus is kept at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. In Russia, itís at the Vector lab in Siberia.

Why keep this incredibly deadly virus around? The scientists at the CDCand in Russia give the same answer: more research is needed to develop better vaccines, to protect us from a bioterrorism attack. ďWe still have work to do to protect the public,Ē said Ali Khan, a smallpox researcher at the CDC, quoted just last week in the Washington Post.

Theyíve been making this argument for 30 years now, but they are wrong. The only thing they need to do is to destroy their stocks of smallpox, and wipe out this virus once and for all. This seems like an obvious thing to do, but itís obvious now that the scientists whose jobs depend on keeping the smallpox around will never agree to destroy it. Nor will their bosses at the CDC. Yet keeping the smallpox around dramatically increases the risk that a deranged person will get his hands on it and release it in the population.

A smallpox outbreak would indeed be a frightening scenario: smallpox has a mortality rate of 30-35%, and it has been called one of the most devastating diseases in the history of mankind. In the 18th century, it killed 400,000 Europeans each year, and in the 1950s it was still infecting 50 million people a year worldwide. Routine vaccination ended about 35 years ago, which would make an outbreak today truly devastating. But an outbreak cannot happen if we destroy the smallpox that the U.S. and Russia are still holding.

Back in 1999, the WHO set a deadline to destroy the remaining smallpox samples, but the U.S. and Russia have repeatedly delayed action. At the 2006 meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA), virtually every country agreed, again, that the smallpox should be destroyed, but the U.S. and Russia objected, and no date was set to destroy the remaining stocks. The WHA will meet again this coming May, and smallpox will be on the agenda. Unless President Obama takes a firm stand, I expect that the U.S. will once again insist on keeping its smallpox stores.

Experts such as D.A. Henderson, who led the effort to eradicate smallpox, have pointed out that we can develop new vaccines without the virus. The genome has been sequenced several times over, and we have the technology to synthesize parts of the virus if we really need it for vaccine design. Despite these facts, the old guard at the CDC will never agree to destroy their smallpox willingly.

President Obama: here is an opportunity to do the right thing. You can order the CDC to destroy their stocks of smallpox, and eliminate this unnecessary risk from the planet. The United States can and should take the moral lead on this public health threat, rather than stonewalling once again at the next World Health Assembly. Destroy the smallpox, and wipe out this scourge once and for all.