U.S. proposes holding smallpox for five more years

The United States has proposed it continue to secure one of the the world’s two remaining stockpiles of the smallpox virus for at least another five years in order to facilitate continued research.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently announced that the World Health Organization has been asked to review the question of whether the remaining stockpiles in Russia and the U.S. should stay in place and have their status reviewed again in 2016, the Associated Press reports.

At a news conference held at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, also the location of WHO’s ongoing World Health Assembly, Sebelius said the U.S. was committed to the eventual destruction of smallpox.

The U.S. fears, however, that the virus could be needed to develop a vaccine in the event that the virus was released unintentionally or used deliberately as a biological weapon.

Bill Hall, an aide to Sebelius, said that the U.S. was not going to act unilaterally on the issue, but would wait for a vote on the proposal at the assembly in Geneva, according to the Associated Press.

This is the fifth year in a row that some WHO member countries have attempted to set a date for the virus’ destruction, though it lacks the power to enforce such a decision. WHO officials said there was little indication that the stance had found increased support since last year.

A WHO commissioned report from last year concluded that the stockpiles could still be made useful for drug development, but the issue of whether the stockpiles should be destroyed remains contentious.

Sebelius said that no one has actually verified whether every nation complied with WHO efforts to transfer all of the stockpiles of smallpox to the U.S. or Russia, according to the Associated Press.