Reprieve for the killer

Smallpox virus stocks to be kept for research until 2002

Published: Sunday 15 August 1999

-- should the last known samples of the smallpox virus be destroyed or preserved for medical research? Or, should the vials of virus continue to remain in deep-freeze in case a future enemy develops it into a biological weapon? These are some of the questions at the heart of an on-going global controversy.

What triggered the debate is the reversal of the World Health Organisation's ( who) stand in 1996 to destroy the two known stocks of smallpox virus by June this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, usa and the Russian State Centre for Research on Virology and Biotechnology at Novosibirsk, somewhere in Siberia in the Russian Federation, can thus keep the virus at least till 2002. The who hopes that the virus can be used "for the purpose of further research of anti-viral agents and will permit high-priority investigations of the genetic structure and pathogenesis of smallpox". The who' s decision comes close on the heels of a similar us decision of not destroying its stores of virus, taken in mid-April.

Why the panic? Smallpox is a fatal disease with no cure and a mortality rate of over 30 per cent. Its lethality, coupled with its absence for over 20 years, makes the disease a potentially biological weapon. In an unexposed population -- which is now the world -- it could spread like wildfire. International pressure to put the virus to bed came soon after the disease claimed its last victim in 1978 in Somalia and the who declared the world smallpox-free in 1980.

President Bill Clinton's decision seems to have been based on two grounds -- research and security. The virus stocks can be used for the development of anti-viral vaccines to protect the population in the event of an accidental or pre-meditated release of smallpox.

And as a White House statement says, "(It) reflects our concern that we cannot be entirely certain that after we destroy the declared stocks in Atlanta and in Russia we will eliminate all the smallpox virus in existence. We have a responsibility to develop the drug and vaccine tools to deal with any future contingency."

The research argument appears weak, at least at the present moment, as very little work has been conducted especially after the accidental release, and death of two laboratory workers and later a photographer in 1978 in Birmingham University School of Medicine, uk . The accident drove the chief of the virology laboratory to suicide and Britain promptly got rid of its stocks. Just two labs in the us have the required containment facilities for handling this virus. Besides, scientists have realised that monkeypox is just as good, if much less contagious. Moreover, the chances of finding an anti-viral drug from smallpox are minimal.

Is the security argument more credible as even Russian sources are unsure if some virus stock may have reached countries like North Korea. But in the event of such an attack, scientists suspect that there is not much that live virus can offer. The vaccine is made of cowpox virus and not smallpox and the who has provided for enough seeds to develop such a vaccine, in the event of a crisis. What is more, such vaccines need to be manufactured and distributed within weeks after an attack, which may not be possible. But there will be a problem at hand if some rogue nation develops a vaccine-resistant, genetically-engineered version of the smallpox virus.

Joshua Lederberg, Rockefeller University professor and a long-time adviser to the us government on biological warfare, applauds the decision as any step to destroy the virus will be unenforceable. He admits that an accidental or intentional reintroduction of the virus would be dangerous to the unimmunised population. He advocates preservation of stocks under an international supervision requiring declaration of possession, inspection of facilities, and research to develop antiviral drugs with strict provisions for biosafety.

Yet, today, we are probably more vulnerable today than we were in the 13th century. What is more, smallpox has long been recognised as a potent biological weapon. The Spanish Conquistadors, spread smallpox among native tribes in what is now Mexico and Central America, wiping out entire civilisations. Even American settlers used the virus to wipe out certain Indian tribes.

The world -- unprotected and unprepared -- is looking up for concerted international effort to build a safety net from the remaining virus stocks.

The author is a scientist with the Indian Council of Medical Research, New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily of the council

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