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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Recruitment Genius: Content Writer - Global Financial Services

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Receptionist

£15000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future