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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
Ukip leader Nigel Farage arrives at the Rochester by-election count
voicesIs it any wonder that Thornberry, Miliband, and Cameron have no idea about ordinary everyday life?
Life and Style
tech
News
i100BBC political editor Nick Robinson had a lot of explaining to do
Life and Style
Nappies could have advice on them to encourage mothers and fathers to talk to their babies more often
newsTalking to babies can improve their language and vocabulary skills
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
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

Recruitment Genius: Female Support Workers / Carers - From £8.00 per hour

£8 - £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To assist a young family with the care ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

£55000 - £70000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world lead...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world leading services pr...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines