WHO Backs Smallpox Virus Experiments

The governing body of the World Health Organization last week approved plans for genetic modification of the smallpox virus, the New York Times reported (see GSN, May 17).

The World Health Assembly also supported distributing smallpox samples to additional laboratories for research. Stocks of the virus are now kept at two sites, one in the United States and the other in Russia.

Experiments are hoped to lead to new detection methods for smallpox and treatments for the virus, the Times reported. Researchers would be required to submit details on their work and their security efforts before beginning the experiments.

A member of a WHO advisory committee said he does not expect the panel to approve any projects before its annual meeting in November.

The assembly last week also approved plans to develop a 33.5 million-dose stockpile of smallpox vaccine to treat victims of a natural outbreak or terrorist incident, the Times reported (Lawrence Altman, New York Times, May 21).

Governing body members held off on a decision on whether to destroy all stocks of the smallpox virus, Agence France-Presse reported Friday.

The need to focus on smallpox countermeasures took precedence, given concerns that virus samples might secretly be held outside of the two laboratories, officials said.

“The long-term aim of the WHO and the assembly is to destroy this virus, that’s clear,” said WHO disease expert Mike Ryan.

“The question from a public health point of view is do we know enough about the virus, do we have the correct antivirals, do we have safe and effective vaccines, and effective and rapid diagnostics,” he added (Agence France-Presse/Yahoo!News, May 20).