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Scientists urge delay in destroying last smallpox

Smallpox Vaccination Study in Florida

AP Medical Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than three decades after the eradication of smallpox, U.S. officials say it's still not time to destroy the last known stockpiles of the virus behind one of history's deadliest diseases.

The world's health ministers meet later this month to debate, again, the fate of vials held under tight security in two labs - one in the U.S. and one in Russia.

The virus is being used for carefully limited research to create drugs and safer vaccines in case this killer ever returns, through terrorism or a lab accident or if all the world's stocks aren't really accounted for. Member countries of the World Health Organization long ago agreed that eventually the last virus strains would be destroyed. The question was when.

Some countries say it's long past time. But the World Health Assembly, the WHO's decision-making assembly, repeatedly has postponed that step.

Today, there are new generations of smallpox vaccine, and two long-sought antiviral treatments are in the pipeline. Is that enough?

"Despite these advances, we argue that there is more to be done" in improving protections, Dr. Inger Damon, poxvirus chief at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote Thursday in the journal PLoS Pathogens. She co-authored the article with two experts from Florida and Brazil.

Moreover, a recent World Health Organization meeting raised a new specter: Advances in synthetic biology mean it may be technologically possible to create a version of smallpox from scratch.

"The synthetic biology adds a new wrinkle to it," Jimmy Kolker, Health and Human Services assistant secretary for global affairs, told The Associated Press. "We now aren't as sure that our countermeasures are going to be as effective as we'd thought even five years ago."

For centuries smallpox killed about a third of the people who became infected. But thanks to worldwide vaccination, in 1980 smallpox became the only human disease so far to be declared eradicated from the environment. Then the worry became re-emergence.

It's not clear how widely the U.S. concerns are shared. Last fall two WHO committees reviewed smallpox research. One found no more need for the live virus; a majority of the other panel said it was needed only for further drug development.

"We believe that the smallpox research program is effectively complete and the case for destruction is stronger than ever," said Lim Li Ching of the Third World Network, a group that lobbies on behalf of developing countries and wants the virus destroyed within two years.

Although countermeasures aren't perfect, keeping live virus on hand is scientifically unnecessary now that its genetic makeup is known, said Dr. D.A. Henderson, who led the WHO's global eradication campaign.

"Let's destroy the virus and be done with it," said Henderson, now with the nonprofit UPMC Center for Health Security. "We would be better off spending our money in better ways," such as improving protection against anthrax and other agents on the bioterrorism worry list.

But CDC's Damon wrote that the smallpox research has aided in recognition and treatment of related diseases, such as monkeypox.

And Kolker, the chief U.S. delegate to the upcoming meeting, said a number of countries want WHO to appoint outside experts to evaluate how serious the synthetic biology threat really is by year's end.

"This isn't something that should drag on forever, and the U.S. doesn't want it to drag on forever," he said. "We can't just ignore it."

Synthetic biology is "not something you can do in your garage," cautioned Dr. Sylvie Briand, WHO's director of pandemic diseases.

But destroying the virus isn't the real issue, she said: "The real debate is what is the public health risk nowadays, and what are the response measures we have in hand to mitigate those risks."

Join the discussion

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Dad May 02 2014 at 12:27 PM

The thing that concerns me about smallpox is it is such an ancient viral plague that no one knows exactly where it's origins are. Scientists say that it is only spread from human to human, so if everyone has been vaccinated it is now eradicated, but the problem is now we have a whole new generation that has NOT been vacinated because WHO says virus is gone in human population. It could be laying in a pile of dirt in some remote location just waiting for some human to again come in contact with it and BLAM. All those un vaccinated people are suddenly in danger.

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sr261 May 02 2014 at 9:22 AM

It is a real scare to think that smallpox could someday reappear. I wonder what would happen to to all of those who were not vacinated back in the late 70's and on? Would mass vacinations of those people have to take place? The oldest are in their 30's now. What a horrible thing to think of. I wish we had better relations with all countries.

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1 reply
Tim sr261 May 02 2014 at 11:08 AM

I was born in the 40s and it was required then.

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lbreamer May 02 2014 at 8:47 AM

We may have fully eradicated it in 1980 but with all of the other diseases we thought we had under control (tuberculosis, polio, etc) I'm sure smallpox will reappear from the same sources as those others have - Third World countries with minimal sanitization, horrible medical care & no vaccination programs in place. Those people coming into our country bringing with them resistant & new strains of old killers. Keep studying, CDC, do what you have to do to make things as safe as possible.

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tearsofthemoon53 May 02 2014 at 5:15 AM

Since live versions of the virus are geing held in Atlanta and Moscow why are'nt we being vaccinated ? Biological warfare hasn't ceased anywhere on this planet

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1 reply
Seewcrazy tearsofthemoon53 May 02 2014 at 6:57 AM

Continuing the vaccination of the population should be standard procedure. This is a disease that could reemerge. These people don't really KNOW if it has been eradicated. You can't prove a negative.

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onemissourian May 02 2014 at 2:37 AM


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Buckingham's May 02 2014 at 1:14 AM

Pour it into North Korea's drinking water. Or Al; Queada's. Or yemen's.

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1 reply
onemissourian Buckingham's May 02 2014 at 2:39 AM


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ga7smi May 02 2014 at 12:51 AM

smallpox hasn't been erradicated

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bah002 May 02 2014 at 12:43 AM

I have had at least 4 smallpox inoculations' To prevent the disease, going to different schools and the last one was in 1966 when my Dr. gave me one because I was pregnant
shortly thereafter they were banned. I still carry the virus in my body I know because I am a retired nurse and had to be tested for chicken pox which I don't remember having and not only was I positive for that but also for measles which I had and smallpox. granted dead or dormant virus; but still there. the thing is there is not much of a chance I would become contagious; however carrying the dead virus of chicken pox I could get shingles, so heaven knows about small pox. yes keep some of it around!

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tmgokey May 02 2014 at 12:36 AM

Everyone who trusts Mr Putin to destroy his vial(s) of Smallpox virus, raise your hand. Nobody? That's what I thought...

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SumBreezeHuh May 02 2014 at 12:31 AM

Reminds me like the biological warfare accident in The Stand (Stephen King)

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2 replies
rsaillant1 SumBreezeHuh May 02 2014 at 7:34 AM

Nothing makes a stronger rational argument than using a fictional reference...Ya' Think?

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1 reply
lbreamer rsaillant1 May 02 2014 at 8:53 AM

Have you ever read The Stand?? Did you ever read Outbreak by Robin Cook?? These "fictional references" have their basis in reality. There ARE stockpiles of chemical, biological & germs that can be released - either on purpose or as an accident. The fact that the CDC still maintains live smallpox virus backs this up. Read a book before you poke at someone, sometime. You might be surprised at what's "really" out there.

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lbreamer SumBreezeHuh May 02 2014 at 8:50 AM

Every time I read that book, I get the sniffles or a full blown cold!!! LOL But yes, it's such a good horror story because it's based on a premise that can come true - with ease.

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