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Decision Delayed on Eliminating Smallpox Stocks

The World Health Assembly on Tuesday pushed back to 2014 any decision on setting a deadline to eliminate smallpox virus strains held by Russia and the United States, Reuters reported (see GSN, May 23).

Moscow and Washington have said they need to hold onto the world's last known variola virus stocks to allow for continued research and development of additional vaccines and antivirals. They had pressed for delaying a decision on the matter for five years.

While the European Union and nations such as China and Israel backed that position, a bloc of some 20 countries led by Iran had reportedly pressed for a schedule to be set at this meeting of the decision-making body for the World Health Organization. The gathering ended on Tuesday, following two days of consideration of the matter.

"There has been a lot of discussion around the smallpox issue," WHO official Pierre Formenty said to reporters. "Three years from now, we will resume the discussion" (Barbara Lewis, Reuters I/Yahoo!News, May 24).

Iran on Monday had taken the rare step of calling for a vote on establishing the smallpox destruction deadline, Reuters reported.

The 193-member state World Health Assembly typically makes decisions based on consensus. Tehran's proposal was dismissed by other countries who instead backed forming a working group to attempt to bridge disagreements on the schedule issue.

"You could say Iran is using this issue," an informed insider said. "But it isn't just Iran. It's more or less a division between the developed and developing world" (Barbara Lewis, Reuters II, May 23).

The working group was unable to come to an accord on a resolution addressing the virus impasse, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy quoted WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl as saying (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy release, May 23).

Smallpox was declared eliminated from nature in 1980 but the United States fears some nations might have secretly held onto samples of the virus as the global destruction campaign was conducted on a voluntary basis. Washington would like confirmation that there are no such smallpox stocks.

Tehran has said the danger of hostile actors acquiring smallpox is justification enough to destroy the Russian and U.S. samples that are held at a laboratory in Siberia and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Some observers say the virus strains are no longer necessary for developing countermeasures against the disease.

In the past quarter century, countries have pressed four times to see the U.S. and Russian viruses destroyed, to no avail (Barbara Lewis, Reuters II).

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