Two hundred years to the month after Edward Jenner revolutionised medicine by inventing the smallpox vaccine, the World Health Organisation has finally agreed to wipe out all traces of the virus by the end of the century.
The decision was taken at a committee yesterday and the full World Health Organisation is expected to rubberstamp the decision today to destroy the 400 remaining samples of the smallpox or variola virus.
It marks the final destruction of a disease known as the "spotted death" and the "great fire" that remained rampant until the Sixties throughout 31 countries, claiming up to 2 million lives in the Third World and blinding and disfiguring millions more.
The eradication of smallpox, the organisation's biggest health success to date, took 11 years and $300m (pounds 200m) before the WHO could announce formally in 1980 that "the world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox".
Over the past decade, WHO experts set a series of dates for the destruction of the samples of the smallpox virus locked in special freezers at the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a smaller amount at Russia's State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology in the Urals. Security fears prompted Russia to move its virus stocks from a poorly controlled building in Moscow to remote Novosibirsk in 1993.
There were fears that if the virus escaped or got into the wrong hands, it could be lethal, as populations are no longer considered to have immunity.
"There are different kinds of fears. There is a danger if the virus escapes, nobody would be immune anymore," Dr David Heymann, director of the WHO's division of communi- cable diseases, said.
Experts have also voiced fears that other states could have hidden stocks of potential use for terrorist purposes or germ warfare, although it would not be a "cost-effective weapon" Igor Rozov, a WHO spokesman, said.
But some scientists argued that it was wrong to destroy a whole species of virus which might hold clues to fighting other diseases.
The development of harmless clones of DNA fragments means that scientists are now confident they have the full genetic blueprint of the virus and so no longer need to keep the virus itself.
The stocks will be destroyed on 30 June 1999, dependent on the final nod by the World Health Assembly in May 1999. The US wanted to destroy the stocks earlier but bowed to the pressure of other countries anxious to do more research.
"We have a period of three years to make sure there is that political will to destroy them," Dr Heymann said. "It gives countries the responsibility of verifying one more time."
He said health officials from one country, which he declined to identify, had once contacted the Geneva-based agency saying they had found forgotten smallpox virus stocks "in the deepest part of their laboratory freezer".
Dr Heymann added: "We are constantly on the lookout for other stocks."