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Smallpox Strains Needed for Biodefense: U.S.

(May. 17) -U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, shown last week, on Tuesday said the last remaining known smallpox strains should be retained for the development of countermeasures in case the virus again becomes a threat (Saul Loeb/Getty Images). (May. 17) -U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, shown last week, on Tuesday said the last remaining known smallpox strains should be retained for the development of countermeasures in case the virus again becomes a threat (Saul Loeb/Getty Images).

The potential for smallpox to be unleashed as a biological weapon necessitates the retention of the last remaining known strains of the deadly virus for five years or longer, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Tuesday (see GSN, May 13).

Washington is "committed to the eventual destruction" of the smallpox stocks, but believes they could still be useful in the development of additional countermeasures as a hedge against a possible new outbreak of the virus, the Associated Press quoted Sebelius as saying. Smallpox was declared eradicated from nature in 1980.

"The world has no immunity to smallpox whatsoever," Sebelius said. "It could be released unintentionally or released as a bioweapon."

Sebelius spoke to reporters on the sidelines the World Health Assembly's annual meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, where some member nations were for the fifth time seeking elimination of the smallpox strains.

A total of 451 specimens are reportedly stored at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 120 different strains at the Russian Vector laboratory in Siberia.

Retention of the stocks held by Russia and the United States satisfies no critical need, though the strains could aid in the development of medical countermeasures and the achievement of government mandates, according to an assessment requested in 2010 by the World Health Organization (John Heilprin, Associated Press/San Francisco Chronicle, May 17).

NTI Analysis