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UN Health Agency Will Not Destroy Remaining Smallpox Stocks - 2002-05-18

The World Health Organization's general assembly has voted not to destroy remaining stocks of the live smallpox virus. Officials have said concerns over bioterrorism led to the decision to keep remaining stocks of the virus for further research, even though smallpox has been virtually eradicated worldwide.

Health ministers from around the world agreed to maintain existing stocks of the smallpox virus, located at laboratories in the United States and Russia, so that new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tools can be developed.

National Security Advisor Kenneth Bernard of the U.S. Health Department represented Washington at the assembly, which agreed that no deadline should be set at this time for the destruction of the smallpox stocks.

"We support the recommendation of the director general that any new date for the destruction be fixed when the research accomplishments and outcomes allow consensus to be reached on timing. We regard the potential release of smallpox anywhere as a critical national security issue, not only for the United States, but every other country," Dr. Bernard said.

He said the United States is prepared to provide assistance and vaccines for emergency post-exposure treatment, should any country experience an accidental or intentional release of the virus.

Now that smallpox has been virtually eradicated worldwide, remaining stocks of the virus had been set for destruction later this year. But concerns that smallpox could be used intentionally in bioterrorism prompted the world community to keep the remaining stocks on hand to combat any occurrence of the disease.

The health ministers requested that smallpox research be conducted in an open and transparent manner, and completed as quickly as possible.