WHO postpones smallpox virus destruction by 4 years

May 18, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – At the World Health Assembly meeting today in Geneva, global health officials agreed to postpone for 4 years a decision on when to destroy the world's remaining stores of smallpox virus.

Members of the World Health Assembly, the decision-making arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), reaffirmed a previous decision to destroy the remaining stockpiles, Reuters reported. In 2010 the WHO will conduct a review of all completed and proposed research to better enable members of the 2011 assembly to reach a consensus on when to destroy existing variola virus stocks, the Reuters report said.

Russia and the United States are the only countries known to hold stocks of the smallpox virus. Since the disease was eradicated in the late 1970s, the WHO has often delayed destroying the virus to permit research on smallpox vaccines and treatments, particularly in light of concerns about bioterrorist attacks.

In a Jan 31 report on the WHO executive board's draft resolution that was to be presented at the assembly, the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit organization that works to ban biological weapons, said that issues surrounding smallpox virus destruction are divisive. Developing countries have pushed for setting a destruction date, but the United States and Russia have resisted a deadline decision because they want to expand smallpox virus research into new areas, without sharing the results with other countries.

The developing countries oppose genetic engineering of the variola virus and want assurances that rules on smallpox DNA distribution are not relaxed, the group said.

Enacting a major review of the current smallpox research breaks new ground and suggests a willingness for nations to compromise, the Sunshine Project said in its report.

See also:

Sunshine Project report on WHO board resolution
http://www.smallpoxbiosafety.org/papers/WHAvariola2007.pdf

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