Expert calls for destruction of U.S. smallpox stockpile

Because of the potential for a diplomatic fight at the World Health Assembly, a smallpox expert recommends that the United States destroy, or be prepared to destroy, the remainder of its stockpile of the deadly disease.

Despite being eliminated in the 1970s, both the United States and Russia have maintained a cache of the virus for use in research and in producing countermeasures should some country have kept its own stockpile for weapons purposes, according to

The WHA, the annual meeting of World Health Organization member states, agreed to allow the retention of the virus stocks for research in the 1990s and again in 2002, but Jonathan Tucker, has said the pressure to destroy the stockpiles is building.

Tucker, in an article published in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, calls the potential for conflict over the issue a “diplomatic train wreck.”

"In order to avoid an international confrontation at the 2011 World Health Assembly that would be harmful to all concerned, the US should accept a firm deadline (e.g., by the end of 2012) for ending the smallpox research program and destroying the WHO-authorized stocks of variola virus," Tucker, the author of Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox, wrote, according to

“If this option won't work because of opposition from Russia or other WHO members, the United States should stand ready to negotiate a compromise calling for destruction of most of the remaining stockpile while taking steps to share the results of smallpox research among WHO members,” Tucker said.

In Tucker’s view, Russia opposes destroying its variola virus stockpile, but, if the United States stopped its opposition, it is doubtful that Russia would continue in defiance of the world body. Furthermore, many countries in Africa and Asia want the virus stockpiles eliminated.

Tucker also said that the United States’ preparedness for a bioterrorist related release of smallpox has improved since the research began in 1999, Besides having enough doses of vaccine to protect the nation, there are two promising antiviral drugs in development.

It is possible, Tucker told, that an accommodation could be found on the fate of the variola stockpile if complete elimination is not an option.

The United States and Russia could agree, for example, to reduce the EHO-authorized stocks to fewer than 10 representative strains in each country. This would not satisfy everyone, according to Tucker, but would be a step towards reconciliation.

Also, the WHA could take steps to prevent the synthesis of variola strains from scratch, reaffirming WHA guidelines and incorporating them into national laws and regulations.

Finally, the United States and Russia could take further steps to share their research with WHO member nations and provide royalty-free licenses for those that wish to produce vaccines.