WHO pushes for smallpox eradication

Several member countries of the World Health Organization are expected to push for the destruction of the last remaining stockpiles of the smallpox virus at the 64th World Health Assembly, to be held in Geneva beginning today.

The effort will be the fifth time that members have demanded the destruction of the remaining stockpiles. It seems likely that the efforts will fail, according to the Associated Press.

Officials in the Russia and the U.S., the countries that are in possession of the virus, claim that it is essential that some smallpox is kept alive in case a future biological threat necessitates more testing of the virus, and because virus samples are still needed to develop experimental vaccines and drugs.

In 1996, the WHO’s member countries first came to the agreement that the stockpiles need to be eradicated. They have repeatedly delayed the order so that scientists could finish work on several new drugs. There are now two more vaccines completed and a third in development. There are also medicines in the experimental stages of development that aim to treat the disease, though not cure it, according to the AP.

Regardless, even if most of the member states vote to set an actual date for destruction, the agency has no power to enforce any decision.

The scientific community is divided over the issue. The respected journal Nature editorialized against destruction earlier in the year, arguing that the need to do further research and develop new countermeasures to a biological attack was too important to risk destroying the virus.

Dr. Donald Henderson, who led the WHO’s successful eradication efforts in the 1970’s, has come out in favor of eliminating the stockpiles.

"It would be an excellent idea to destroy the smallpox viruses," Henderson said, according to the Associated Press. "This is an organism to be greatly feared."

David Evans, a smallpox expert at the University of Alberta, inspected the U.S. and Russia holding labs as part of a WHO team. He told the AP that he doubts that smallpox could escape either facility and believes that there is little chance that it would be used in a biological attack.

The laboratories that contain stockpiles have kept them using the highest possible containment measures. Scientists that work with the virus use fingerprint or retinal scans to gain access, wear a full body suit, including gloves and goggles, and shower with disinfectant before leaving the labs. The U.S. samples are stored in liquid nitrogen.

Rumors that there are stockpiles in countries like Iraq and North Korea have never been proven, and Evans said that it would be far too difficult to experiment with a virus like smallpox and still maintain secrecy.

"The nations I would worry about, weird places run by odd dictators, they're just not capable of doing this stuff," Evans said, according to the Associated Press. "If you want to disrupt countries, there are lots of easier ways to do it than to experiment with something so dangerous.”