Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Smallpox, new and improved?

The man who thought he had rid the world of smallpox, Dr. D. A. Henderson, isn't too keen on allowing scientists to conduct experiments to genetically modify the virus. He wants all existing stocks destroyed. Unfortunately, his government and some of his US colleagues don't agree. They are asking WHO's World Health Assembly (its governing body) to allow experiments to proceed.
Researchers have already been given the go-ahead by a technical committee of the World Health Organisation, which accepts the argument that the research could bring new vaccines and treatments for smallpox closer. This week the debate will pass for a final decision to the floor of the full assembly of the WHO, whose representatives from 192 member states begin a 10-day annual meeting in Geneva today. (From The Guardian)
All smallpox stocks were to be destroyed by 1999, but this didn't happen, primarily because both the US and Russia "dragged their feet":
The WHO then set up the Variola (smallpox) Advisory Committee to give the WHO scientific advice on what should and should not be permitted. The committee, known as VAC, has gradually shifted the position away from destruction. At its last meeting, in November, the committee recommended that US proposals for further experimentation on the live virus, including genetic modification, should be allowed.
Not everone agrees. The Sunshine Project and The Third World Network are vigorously campaigning against genetic modification of the virus. They point out that the VAC is three fourths composed of scientists from the US, Europe and Russia. These countries have sufficient public health infrastructure so that if smallpox were to reappear they could vaccinate their populations. Moreover, smallpox vaccine is a live-virus vaccine made from cowpox virus and cannot be safely used in the huge HIV positive population of the developing world.

There is also the danger that working on the virus at multiple sites around the world will provide opportunity for development of weapons:
"The problem is that we have got a lot of people with a lot more talent working in biological laboratories around the world and a lot of them are very well-trained and the potential for mischief here is much greater," [Henderson] said.
And of course there is the potential for an unintentional release. It is worth remembering that the last person to die of smallpox was a photographer who worked upstairs from a laboratory that was working with the smallpox virus in Birmingham, England. The date of her death? September 11, 1978.