After U.S. Pressure, Smallpox Wins Reprieve Again

Staying alive. The smallpox virus.

CDC/ Fred Murphy

The smallpox virus, on death row for decades, has been given another stay of execution. The World Health Assembly (WHA), an annual meeting of health ministers in Geneva, decided today to defer the debate about destruction of the remaining virus stocks until 2014.

Opposition against retaining the pathogen has been building in recent years, but the United States, which is still conducting research with the virus, lobbied hard the past few months to retain the remaining smallpox stocks and allow for further studies. Once again, it managed to stave off a firm deadline.

"To me, this is regrettable but perhaps not surprising," given the past 2 decades, says Donald Henderson, who led the worldwide campaign to eradicate smallpox virus in the 1970s. "There's just a determination to hold on to the virus," says Henderson, currently a resident scholar at the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania.

After the world was officially declared free of smallpox in 1980, countries destroyed their smallpox stocks or shipped them to two labs authorized to keep them, one in the United States and one in Russia. Since then, there has been a debate between so-called destructionists, who argue that the world will be safer with the last virus gone, and so-called retentionists, who argue that more research on vaccines, therapies, and diagnostics is needed because bioterrorists might one day get their hands on hidden stashes of the virus.

So far, the retentionists have won. Deadlines for destruction have been postponed multiple times since the early 1990s while an extensive research program got under way. The issue was on the agenda again this year after two panels had completed a review of the research done so far and the need to retain the virus (Science,28 January, p. 389).

The past few weeks, the United States engaged in "a lot of arm-twisting" to get other countries on its side, says biosecurity specialist Jonathan Tucker of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius drove home the importance of the issue to the United States at a press conference last week in Geneva.

Nevertheless, a U.S. resolution supported by Russia to allow research to continue for at least five more years met with considerable opposition yesterday when the issue was discussed in a WHA committee, says Edward Hammond, an activist for destruction who has closely monitored the debates and reported on them via his
Twitter feed. Opponents to the U.S. resolution included the 22 countries of the World Health Organization's Eastern Mediterranean region, led by Iran, Hammond reports, as well as the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, China, Thailand, Peru, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.="#%21>

But none put a counter-resolution in favor of a deadline on the table, and many other countries, including Canada, Australia, and those in the European Union, supported the U.S.-Russian position. (Hammond also co-authored a long article about the deliberations.)

The committee's chair decided to convene an informal, 50-country working group to try to hammer out a consensus behind closed doors yesterday afternoon. When that attempt failed, the issue came back to the full committee, which eventually backed a proposal by Switzerland to postpone the issue until the 2014 WHA.

"Three years is a reasonable time period in terms of the next review," the chief U.S. delegate to the assembly was quoted as saying today by the Associated Press. "Obviously during that time period, we expect there will be meaningful progress in the research on anti-virals and vaccines and diagnostics."

Hammond, who's a consultant for a Malaysia-based lobby group called the Third World Network, says he's "fairly happy" with the outcome as well. The United States did not get an explicit new mandate for research, he says, and it did not get the 5-year stay it was looking for. Moreover, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said today that she will keep in place the new Advisory Group of Independent Experts (AGIES), which indicated last year that there was no need to retain the virus much longer. AGIES, says Tucker, will provide "a counterweight" against WHO's Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, which has more pox virologists among its members and has long been on the side of doing more research.

But Henderson is disappointed. The AGIES review showed that recent research has already resulted in a new generation of safer smallpox vaccines and two antiviral compounds, the most important goals of the research program. "What more do they want?" Henderson says. "Reason does not prevail."