Scientists urge delay in destroying last smallpox samples

WASHINGTON — More than three decades after the eradication of smallpox, U.S. officials say it’s still not time to destroy the last known stockpiles of the virus behind one of history’s deadliest diseases.

The world’s health ministers meet later this month to debate, again, the fate of vials held under tight security in two labs — one in the U.S. and one in Russia.

The virus is being used for carefully limited research to create drugs and safer vaccines in case this killer ever returns, through terrorism or a lab accident or if all the world’s stocks aren’t really accounted for. Member countries of the World Health Organization long ago agreed that eventually the last virus strains would be destroyed. The question was when.

Some countries say it’s long past time. But the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making assembly, repeatedly has postponed that step.

Today, there are new generations of smallpox vaccine, and two long-sought antiviral treatments are in the pipeline. Is that enough?

“Despite these advances, we argue that there is more to be done” in improving protections, Dr. Inger Damon, poxvirus chief at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote Thursday in the journal PLoS Pathogens. She co-authored the article with two experts from Florida and Brazil.

Moreover, a recent World Health Organization meeting raised a new specter: Advances in synthetic biology mean it may be technologically possible to create a version of smallpox from scratch.

“The synthetic biology adds a new wrinkle to it,” Jimmy Kolker, Health and Human Services assistant secretary for global affairs, told The Associated Press. “We now aren’t as sure that our countermeasures are going to be as effective as we’d thought even five years ago.”

But CDC’s Damon wrote that the smallpox research has aided in recognition and treatment of related diseases, such as monkeypox.

But destroying the virus isn’t the real issue, she said: “The real debate is what is the public health risk nowadays, and what are the response measures we have in hand to mitigate those risks.”

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