May 25, 2011

World Health Organization Delays Destruction of Smallpox

At the annual World Health Assembly meeting, the World Health Organization (WHO) has once again delayed the planned destruction of the remaining smallpox stocks, currently held solely by the U.S. and Russia. A study commissioned by the WHO reported in March that the viral stocks are currently secured at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (Atlanta) and the State Research Centre for Virology and Biotechnology (Koltsovo, Russian Federation).  In addition, a reserve of smallpox vaccine is held in Switzerland. Smallpox is considered to be one of the most effective bioweapons that can be procured; more details here; the relevant factors are its contagiousness, the relatively low dose needed to infect, and a high mortality rate.  This decision by WHO will be revisited in 3 years, intead of the usual 5-year review period.  Arguments pro and con regarding maintaining smallpox stocks have raged for years; ironically, both sides invoke public health concerns - those wishing to destroy the stocks argue that it removes a known deadly pathogen from a terrorist portfolio; those who argue for its preservation believe that there may be smallpox stocks that remain undetected and that scientists will need virus stocks for research should an unforeseen outbreak occur. I think it is more likely that undetected stockpiles remain outside the protection of the WHO regulatory regime, and that public health officials could find that the official stocks are invaluable in an emergency.  Moreover, there is always more research that can be done on the virus to unravel its pathogenicity and provide a more detailed road map for antiviral strategies.

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