4.09 Smallpox eradication: destruction of variola virus stocks

The report summarizes the discussions and conclusions of the annual meeting of the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research. This includes the major review undertaken in 2010, as requested in resolution WHA60.1.

Background Documentation

Update on Smallpox (Variola) Virus Destruction (Briefing document by TWN)

 Since  2005, the World Health Assembly (WHA)  debate  on destruction of  variola  virus stocks has taken on new urgency and political importance. In that year, governments responded with grave concern to US plans to genetically engineer the extremely dangerous virus, which is eradicated from nature and solely exists at World Health Organization (WHO) Repository Laboratories in the United States and Russia.

 The  2005 controversy prompted reversal of WHO approval for  genetic  engineering experiments including insertion of  smallpox genes into other  poxviruses and led to governments paying closer attention to the WHO’s weak oversight of  smallpox research. This culminated in 2007, in a WHA resolution that states that any research undertaken should not involve  genetic  engineering of  the  variola virus. This includes genetic engineering of the smallpox virus itself, and of other viruses with smallpox genes.

 Nonetheless, dangerous research involving smallpox virus has continued, despite  repeated (and unimplemented) WHA resolutions that the virus should be destroyed and the WHA’s restriction that any research conducted before  virus destruction be  time-limited and only for  WHA-approved essential public health purposes.

 By resolution of the 55th WHA in 1996, the virus was originally to be destroyed in 1999; but to date Russia  and the  United States have  refused to do so, resulting in subsequent WHA resolutions authorizing “temporary retention” of the virus until a new destruction date is set. With pressure again mounting on the two countries for prompt destruction of the virus stocks, the US convened a committee of its Institute of Medicine to elaborate on alleged future needs for live variola  virus, a move it intended to provide a scientific rationale for its policy of virus retention.

 In parallel and with the  purpose  of  fixing a  new date  for  virus destruction, the  World Health Organization is currently conducting a “major review” of variola virus research for presentation to the  Sixty-fourth World Health Assembly in 2011, when variola  virus destruction will be  a  substantive agenda  item. This review and the planned WHA discussion is pursuant to WHA Resolution 60.1 (2007), which strongly reaffirmed the decisions by previous Assemblies that the virus should be destroyed.

 This paper  provides an update on ongoing variola  virus research projects, the  WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research (VAC, for Variola Advisory Committee), and the US Institute of Medicine  (IOM)  committee. It makes recommendations for  government actions aimed to ensure the destruction of smallpox virus at the earliest possible date.

Read the full paper.