U.S. rejects calls to destroy smallpox stockpile

The U.S. and Russia are fighting an international effort to set a smallpox cache destruction date because they believe that keeping the deadly virus on hand will help them to research and combat bioterrorism.

World Health Organization members met on Wednesday to debate what should be done with the last known samples of the smallpox virus, which reside in a Russian government lab near Novosibirisk and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Most other countries in the world fear that the virus, which is estimated to have killed hundreds of millions of people, could be stolen or released as the result of an accident. The virus is the only human disease to have ever been eradicated by vaccination.

"To put it bluntly, it is the same logic by which the superpowers continue the possession of the nuclear weapons; they wish to hold on to the smallpox virus as a super bio-weapon," Kalyan Banerjee, a virologist from India and a former member of a smallpox research advisory commissions for WHO, said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

If the decision to destroy the virus stockpiles makes it through several health-related government bodies, any country or scientist in possession of the virus after the destruction date will be guilty of serious crimes, D.A. Henderson, head of the WHO's eradication campaign, told the Wall Street Journal.

In 1996, the World Health Assembly agreed to destroy surviving smallpox stockpiles, but as bioterrorism fears spread, the virus won several stays of execution.

Since 2001, the U.S. has spent $1.8 billion on smallpox countermeasures, including a stockpile of over 300 million doses, which is enough to cover every person in the U.S.