Health experts to vote on whether to destroy the last few samples of smallpox

 

Science Editor

It was one of the biggest killers in human history and was also the only human viral disease to be eliminated globally by vaccination. Now health ministers from around the world will decide on whether to destroy the last two remaining laboratory samples of the variola virus, the cause of smallpox.

The General Assembly of the WHO will take a vote on Friday on whether to eradicate the variola virus completely and forever by ordering the incineration of stockpiles in Russia and the United States, which are kept under an agreement signed in 1983 when Ronald Reagan was US President and the Soviet Union was still a country.

Recent tensions between the US and Russia over Ukraine are likely to increase suspicions between these former Cold War adversaries over whether they can trust one another to completely destroy all smallpox stocks on their territories without keeping something in secret.

However, some commentators are pressing the WHO to take the bold step of finally ordering the virus’s total destruction – which it can do legitimately given that it has technical guardianship over both official stockpiles.

“If they are sensible and pragmatic, they will destroy it, which is something that they should have done some time back. This is a chance to show that the WHO is moving with the times,” said Gareth Williams, emeritus professor of medicine at Bristol University of author of The Angel of Death, a history of smallpox.

“If the decision was based on hard science, the virus would have been destroyed years ago. The thing is extinct in the wild and should be extinct everywhere else. I think this is a time for the WHO to make a ‘grand geste’,” Professor Williams said.

Smallpox was one of the most feared infectious diseases and killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th Century alone. It is easily transmitted through the air and there is no effective treatment, although it can be prevented by vaccination, which was how it was finally eradicated in 1980.

Laboratory stockpiles around the world were either destroyed or handed over to the WHO, which compiled a library of strains and divided it equally between Russia’s State Research Centre for Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk and the US Centers [correct] for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

The WHO’s General Assembly has met six times before to agree a date on variola virus destruction but each time deferred the decision. However, this time there are powerful voices supporting the bid to have the two stockpiles destroyed and for variola to be permanently wiped from the face of the earth.

“Let’s destroy the virus and be done with it,” said Donald Henderson, the veteran American physician and epidemiologist who led the WHO’s global eradication campaign against smallpox in the 1960s.

Professor Geoffrey Smith of Cambridge University, who chairs the WHO’s advisory committee on variola virus research, said that he is personally in favour of destroying the virus but that some nations still want the decision deferred until further research has been done.

“I think it’s unlikely that all nations will agree to the destruction of the virus yet, but I think the majority will,” Professor Smith said.

Other scientists believe that having access to live variola virus is still necessary given recent advances in synthetic biology, which has made it conceivable to engineer new and even deadlier strains of variola.

“Despite significant advances, there is more work to be done before the international community can be confident that it possesses sufficient protection against any future smallpox threats,” said Inger Damon, a variola virus expert at the CDC, and two of her colleagues in a recent commentary published in the journal PloS Pathogens.

“We argue that the research agenda with live variola virus is not yet finished and that significant gaps still remain,” they said.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Sport
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Sport
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam