Smallpox Gets a Last-Minute Stay of Execution

Smallpox, one of the deadliest viruses to infect humans, just got a reprieve from its own death sentence this week. According to a senior official at the White House, President Bill Clinton has signed a memorandum ordering U.S. officials not to seek the destruction of smallpox stocks now held in high-security labs in Russia and the United States. The action marks a reversal of the government's position; for the past 3 years, U.S. health authorities have supported a policy adopted by leaders of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, calling for annihilation of all smallpox samples by June 1999.

The WHO eradication plan--now in question--started in 1967, when an estimated 10 million people around the world were infected with smallpox. In an all-out vaccination program, WHO rapidly knocked down the number of cases. By 1980, no new smallpox infections were being reported, and routine vaccination began to taper off. In 1983, WHO members agreed to turn over all live smallpox samples to two repositories: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the Research Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow. In 1996, WHO leaders proposed destroying these stocks, too. The only WHO member to object openly was Russia, which argued that samples should be retained for biological research.

However, the U.S. government "was never unified" on this plan, a staff official at the White House told ScienceNOW. Those who favored destruction continued to argue that the virus is too dangerous to retain, even as a tool for biological studies. But others--especially defense officials--argued that the United States should not destroy its smallpox stocks when researchers in other countries almost certainly have secret supplies. "The big problem," the White House official says, "is that if you destroy the official stocks, you will not know that it is all gone." Recently, advocates of retaining stocks have stressed a new concern--the need to respond to bioterrorist threats. The only way to discourage the use of smallpox as a weapon, they argue, is to develop new antipox drugs and vaccines. And that research requires live virus.

Such arguments persuaded the president to order a change in policy, much to the disappointment of eradication proponents. According to the White House, U.S. health officials will join with the Russians in June to urge WHO to change its mind as well--perhaps giving a death-row killer a new lease on life.