Smallpox-Destruction Deadline Gets Delayed

May 25, 2011


Global health officials Tuesday delayed setting a deadline for the destruction of the last known stocks of smallpox for at least three more years, a compromise that will enable scientists in the U.S. and Russia to continue researching medicines to counter a potential bioterror attack using smallpox.

The consensus at the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, came after a contentious debate over two days.

The U.S., Russia and more than two dozen other countries in the developed and developing world had supported a resolution to keep the stocks of the deadly virus for at least an additional five years. It also required countries aside from the U.S. and Russia to declare to the WHO that they didn’t hold stocks of live smallpox virus. Iran, China, Thailand and other countries objected to the resolution and wanted an earlier timetable.

Smallpox was eradicated more than 30 years ago, but samples of the virus have been kept at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at a Russian government laboratory near Novosibirsk, in Siberia. A WHO panel recommended destruction of the remaining virus in the early 1990s, but that has been put off since then as concerns about a potential outbreak from unsanctioned stocks or a synthesized smallpox virus persuaded countries to agree to keep the virus to develop vaccines and antiviral medications.

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