Smallpox: Implementing the Conclusions of the Major Review


March 15, 2011 

In 2005, the World Health Assembly (WHA) debate on destruction of smallpox (variola) virus stocks heard governments responding with concern to US plans to genetically engineer the extremely dangerous virus. Smallpox is eradicated from nature and solely exists at World Health Organization (WHO) Repository Laboratories in the US and Russia. 

The discussion culminated in 2007 with 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.

The virus was originally to be destroyed in 1999; but to date Russia and the US have refused to do so, resulting in subsequent WHA resolutions authorizing “temporary retention” of the virus until a new destruction date is set. 

In parallel and with the purpose of fixing a new date for virus destruction, the WHO has conducted a “major review” of variola virus research for presentation to the 64th WHA, which meets from 16-24 May 2011. The outcome of this review, which found no compelling public health reason to continue to retain the virus, provides the 64th WHA with clear justification to terminate research involving live variola virus and to schedule the prompt destruction of remaining variola virus stocks.

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