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
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is reported to be in final negotiations to play Doctor Strange for Marvel although the casting has not yet been confirmed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Alloysious Massaquoi, 'G' Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
musicThe surprise winners of the Mercury Prize – and a very brief acceptance speech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
News
video
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

English Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English Teacher - Saffron ...

Primary Supply Teacher - Northants

£90 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Primary School Supply Teache...

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Maths Teacher - Saffro...

Chemistry Teacher - Top School in Malaysia - January Start

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain