A World Health Organization Advisory Committee is set to recommend that laboratory based samples of the smallpox virus not be destroyed so that essential research on the deadly virus can continue. The World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva is due to consider this controversial issue in the coming days.
Senior Officials at the World Health Organization say the advisory committee will recommend that the World Health Assembly's 192 members vote to retain the smallpox virus. They say this will allow scientists to conduct research leading to the development of more effective vaccines and other treatments against the disease, which was declared eradicated in 1979.
Director of WHO's Action and Response Operations, Mike Ryan, says the World Health Organization's long-term goal is to destroy the smallpox virus. But, he says he believes now is not the right time to destroy the existing stocks.
"Clearly, there is no question, that the emergence of the biological weapons threat has raised concern about smallpox," Mr. Ryan said. "Smallpox is a highly destructive agent that spreads rapidly in human populations. It has been proven in the past to cause great mortality, great illness and great disfigurement in human populations. It has been a weapon that has been looked at in the past and used in the past in history as a biological weapon in many situations going back to the centuries. So, therefore, there is a precedent for the use of this agent."
The disease killed over two million people a year as late as the 1960s. The remaining stocks of the smallpox virus are kept in secure laboratories in the United States and Russia. WHO oversees these stocks on behalf of the international community.
Dr. Ryan says WHO does not know whether there are stocks of the smallpox virus in other hands, which could be used for illicit purposes. He says many countries around the world have stockpiled vaccines and taken other measures against a possible outbreak. So, he says, many people around the world clearly view this as a threat.
"On that basis, WHO has worked to, number one, increase its vaccine stockpile, to revisit its procedures for mass vaccination and for targeted ring vaccination," Mr. Ryan said. "All of the surveillance procedures have been looked at again. It has done a lot of training, etc. It has reissued much of its guidance in this area. So, it would be wrong for me to say we do not perceive this as a threat."
Dr. Ryan says the World Health Assembly has to balance the threat of an intentional release of the virus against the threat that the virus could accidentally escape from one of the laboratories in which it is kept. He says the assembly has to balance, what he calls, the small risk of retaining the virus against the loss of research that would ensue were the virus to be destroyed.
Critics of this view say the only way to protect the world from smallpox is to destroy the last remaining samples of the deadly disease.