Smallpox virus destruction talks falter at WHA

May 23, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – A World Health Assembly (WHA)committee that took up a resolution to destroy the remaining stocks of smallpox virus failed to reach an agreement today, despite a working group's attempts to find an acceptable solution.

Last December an expert group commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report recommending that researchers and regulators work together to find new ways to test smallpox countermeasures so that remaining stocks of smallpox virus can be destroyed.

Though smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s, the United States and Russia have kept supplies of the virus, and researchers have continued to work on vaccines and antivirals for use in the event of biological attack.

In 1996 the WHA agreed that the virus stocks should be destroyed, but it has postponed the decision four times.

Many suggestions offered
WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told CIDRAP News that the working group concluded its meeting today without reaching a consensus. He said many suggestions were put forward, but they led to no agreement. He added that the issues that came up during attempts to rework the resolution will be presented in a statement tomorrow to the same committee that discussed it earlier today.

Tomorrow is the last day of the 64th WHA session. The assembly’s executive board meets May 25.

Russia and the United States are pushing to retain their smallpox virus stocks in order to do additional research and are hoping to postpone setting a destruction date for 5 more years, Agence France-Presse(AFP) reported today. Other delegations supporting that stance were the European Union, Canada, Israel, Monaco, and Colombia, the report said.

However, about 20 other countries, many of them developing nations in Africa and Asia, said the resolution should call for the immediate destruction of the virus stocks, according to AFP.

During today's deliberations in the main committee, Iran proposed a vote on the issue, Reuters reported. The move was unusual, because the WHA typically reaches its decisions by consensus, the story said. The other nations rejected Iran's suggestion and opted instead to set up a working group to reach a compromise.

Cholera resolution approved
Also at the WHA today, a committee of delegates approved a resolution on mechanisms for the control and prevention of cholera. Nada Osseiran, a WHO spokeswoman, said member states agreed to a resolution that recognizes cholera as an increasing public health threat and says that climate change is contributing to an increasing number of outbreaks.

Delegates agreed that countries at risk urgently need effective public health interventions, such as better surveillance, access to clean water, and proper sanitation, she said. Response tools should include adequate use of cholera vaccine as a complementary measure, the group agreed in the resolution.

The resolution calls for renewed efforts from the Global Task Force on Cholera Control and scaled-up advocacy measures to tackle the disease.

In other developments, a WHA committee approved a resolution on the eradication of dracunculiasis (guinea worm disease), heard a progress report on polio eradication efforts, and discussed malaria issues, according to the WHO News Twitter feed.

See also:

May 23 Reuters story

May 18 CIDRAP News story "Experts: Regulatory issues are main reason for keeping smallpox virus"

WHO News Twitter feed

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