WHO Looks At Destroying Smallpox Stocks

The World Health Organization is once again about to debate whether or not to destroy the world's remaining stocks of the deadly smallpox virus. We take a look at what has — and what hasn't — changed in the arguments for and against, as the organization gets set to discuss the matter later this week.

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The last cases of smallpox occurred in the late 1970s. Soon after, the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated. All that's known to be left of the virus is now stored in highly secure freezers in the U.S. and Russia. A debate over whether to destroy these last samples has raged for decades.

The WHO is about to take up that discussion once again and NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on what's different this time around.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: People have strong feelings about smallpox and each side is ready for battle. There are the retentionists, who want to keep the virus for science. And then there are the destructionists, who want to wipe it off the face of the planet.

Dr. JONATHAN TUCKER (Federation of American Scientists): This is the perennial issue. It's deja vu all over again, as someone once said. But I think gradually the politics of this issue are changing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Jonathan Tucker, a biosecurity expert with the Federation of American Scientists. He wrote a book on smallpox and says it's a unique virus.

Dr. TUCKER: It's considered the most dangerous virus to have existed in terms of producing hundreds of millions of deaths over human history; thus far, the only virus to have been eradicated by human effort, a global vaccination campaign.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says that was one of the greatest triumphs of public health.

Dr. TUCKER: But it was also weaponized, turned into a biological weapon by the Soviet Union and perhaps other countries. So it reflects also the darkest aspects of human nature.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The idea that terrorists or a rogue state might secretly hold the virus and use it as a weapon is a major reason why the U.S. government wants to keep lab work going. This week, the U.S. delegation to the WHO introduced a resolution saying we should keep the virus until we've developed better tools for protecting the public. Inger Damon studies smallpox at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Dr. INGER DAMON (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): There's really a continued need for using the live virus to evaluate potential utility and efficacy of antivirals, vaccines and in some cases, diagnostics.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But critics say that's the same argument that's been made for more than a decade, even though there's now new drug candidates and safer vaccines. Last year, the WHO had a group of independent experts review the current state of smallpox science. They took a skeptical look at the continued need for live virus. And some people are changing their minds.

Dr. GREG POLAND (Mayo Clinic): We've accomplished what we can accomplish.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Greg Poland is a vaccine researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Back in the late 1990s, he agreed with folks who said we needed to keep smallpox to do some key things, like sequence its genetic code. But Poland says all of that critical work is done.

Dr. POLAND: And when one looks at that, you come to the conclusion: Gee, why are we retaining this? This is expensive to retain, it's dangerous to retain. Any amount of risk is hard to justify when there's no corresponding benefit.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says there's a lot that scientists can do using smallpox genes or closely related but less dangerous viruses. His own work on a new vaccine doesn't require the live virus.

Dr. POLAND: Just isn't needed to create the vaccine, nor to test the vaccine.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: How much the changing science will influence the political debate remains to be seen. Smallpox hit many developing nations hard, and some are eager to see it gone. But that would mean taking on the U.S. and also Russia. D.A. Henderson led the smallpox eradication effort. He's now at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. D.A. HENDERSON (University of Pittsburgh): On this one... (Chuckling) GREENFIELDBOYCE: The WHO delegates are now gathered in Geneva and they could make a decision by the end of the week.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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