Officials of the World Health Organization are scheduled to meet in Geneva next week to decide whether to delay the destruction of the world's remaining stockpile of smallpox virus. Scientists say the virus should be saved to enable researchers to develop better vaccines against it.
Ssmallpox has come under scrutiny because of fears that it may be used by terrorists.
Ever since last year's terrorist attacks in the United States, scientists have become more concerned that an extremist group or rogue state may use smallpox as a weapon.
It is with this fear in mind that the head of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Bruntland, is seeking a delay in the destruction of supplies of the smallpox virus. The remaining stores of the virus are now held in two laboratories, one in Russia and the other in the United States, and were to be destroyed later this year. But scientists say these supplies are needed.
Iain Simpson of the WHO told VOA the stocks of smallpox virus are important for two reasons. "One is research on a possible new vaccine. The other is research into antiviral drugs which could be used to possibly treat smallpox. It is not possible to test new drugs if no stock of the virus is held on which to test them," he said.
Although smallpox was officially declared eradicated worldwide in 1980, it could be very dangerous if it were re-introduced. It is highly contagious and can kill in 30 percent of cases.
Smallpox has always been dangerous, but Mr. Simpson says it was only after the attacks in the United States that countries began to believe that more smallpox antidotes should be developed. "Since the events of September 11, there has been growing concern around the world that someone may have got hold of smallpox and may be prepared to use it as an offensive weapon. Now that would be the most heinous crime possible," he said. "But given that some of our member states are concerned that it might happen, they are also concerned to make sure preparations are in place to deal with it."
Smallpox is spread by droplets contained in an infected person's breath. Vaccination against it is extremely effective, if done within four days of exposure to the virus. But the existing smallpox vaccine can have harmful side-effects, so the WHO says that only those working with the virus or others at direct risk should be inoculated.