Smallpox Studies Trigger Worries

Dissecting a killer. The World Health Assembly gave a cautious green light to some smallpox research.

Research with the most dreaded virus on Earth can go on--but it deserves closer scrutiny. That's the conclusion of a debate at the World Health Assembly (WHA)--the highest body of the World Health Organisation (WHO)--last Thursday and Friday in Geneva, Switzerland. At the meeting, WHO member countries rejected one type of research with variola, the virus that causes smallpox, while urging extra care with others. The assembly also questioned the composition of the panel overseeing the research.

par Smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s; the virus can only be stored and studied legally in one U.S. and one Russian lab. The decision to kill even those last remaining stocks has been postponed repeatedly ( ScienceNOW, 18 January 2002).

Since 1999, WHO's Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research has guided the research, and last November that panel recommended allowing several new steps, including the transfer of DNA snippets of up to 500 basepairs between labs; the insertion of a green fluorescent protein (GFP) into the variola genome, to facilitate drug studies; and splicing variola genes into the genomes of related viruses ScienceNOW 12 November 2004).

Two advocacy groups, the Sunshine Project of Austin, Texas and the Third World Network, with headquarters in Penang, Malaysia, have protested those plans and charged that the Advisory Committee is dominated by U.S. and Russian researchers, many of them with personal or institutional stakes in the research.

Of almost 20 countries speaking at WHO, more than half expressed worries as well. Some asked for a firm deadline for the final destruction of the virus, while others wanted more independent oversight of the work and more input from developing countries. Because the WHA didn't vote or adopt a resolution, it's up to WHO's secretariat to interpret what exactly it decided. Daniel Lavanchy, a WHO staffer handling smallpox, says the agency has concluded that the Assembly agreed not to allow the gene transfer studies but did give the green light to the other types of work--although each individual proposal will get extra careful scrutiny by the Advisory Committee, he says. Also, the agency will "certainly try to address the [committee's] geographical imbalance," Lavanchy says.

Jonathan Tucker, a senior researcher at the Monterey Institute's Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in Washington, D.C, who has followed the destruction debate for years, says that behind the scenes, "both the U.S. and Russia have been pressing quite hard," for widening the scope of variola research. The advocacy groups have been "remarkably successful" in making the issue a hot topic, Tucker says.

Related sites
Press release about the WHA discussion
The Advisory Committee's Report
The Director-General's Recommendation
The campaign by the Sunshine Project and the Third World Network
Dead Virus Walking, Science article about the variola research program
CDC information on smallpox