May 24, 2011

WHO Discussing Future Of Smallpox Virus Samples

The World Health Organization (WHO) held a meeting on Monday to discuss the future of smallpox virus samples, which Russia and the U.S. are seeking to preserve while other countries wish for them to be destroyed.

The two countries hold the last official stocks of the deadly virus.

Russia and the U.S. want the viruses kept for scientific reasons, saying it is necessary to continue research on their vaccines in order to prevent any resurgence of the transmissible disease, which was eradicated in 1979.

They fear that countries may have secretly kept the virus to be used as a biological weapon.

WHO member states said in a draft resolution on Monday that they wanted to begin discussing a possible date for the virus sample destruction.

Many countries want the samples to be destroyed immediately and the WHO decided to create a working group to work towards a compromise draft.

A WHO spokeswoman said the debate would continue on Tuesday, ahead of an eventual vote on the resolution.

"Nothing is to be expected tonight on smallpox," said Fadela Chaib.

"The informal working group resumed its work at 17:30 pm (1530GMT). They will work for a couple of hours in a private session. They will then report back to the Committee A tomorrow morning."

The Russian envoy said during Monday's discussion:   "We feel that we do not have sufficient guarantees on the efficiency and the preparation of the vaccines."

"Destruction will be irreversible," he added, noting that it is necessary to be "doubly prudent on a question that concerns security of all humanity."

"After the research, we can determine a date," he added.

The European Union, Canada, Israel, Monaco, Columbia and China were among countries that supported the efforts.

However, about 20 other countries said they are strongly against the resolution, saying that immediate destruction of the virus must be imposed.

"There is no longer scientific justification to keep these viruses," said a Malaysian diplomat.

"It's been 30 years since we agreed to keep the stocks," noted an Iranian envoy. "It is about time to fix a definitive date" to eradicate them.

Aid groups also spoke out against retaining the virus.

Edward Hammond, an adviser to Third World Network, said smallpox was "a question of national security for the US and Russia, hidden behind a health mask."


Image Caption: This transmission electron micrograph depicts a number of smallpox virions. The "dumbbell-shaped" structure inside the virion is the viral core, which contains the viral DNA; Mag. = ~370,000x. Credit: CDC/ Dr. Fred Murphy; Sylvia Whitfield


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