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Global Health Leaders Again Put Off Verdict on Eliminating Smallpox

The World Health Organization delayed any decision on potentially eliminating the world's final known stocks of smallpox virus, Nature reports.

State participants in the agency's multinational governing board remained in deadlock on whether any public health benefit from retaining the virus for research could justify the potential risk of the agent escaping from the Russian laboratory or the U.S. facility where it is held, the journal reported on Wednesday.

The World Health Assembly moved instead to establish a new expert panel to provide input on the debate. The consultative body would seek to establish common ground between differing opinions reached by two groups previously directed to evaluate the issue on the agency's behalf.

One of the those two bodies -- the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research -- said smallpox virus would not be needed for future work on vaccinations or evaluative tools, but would remain necessary to prepare new medications. The latter conclusion was subject to controversy within the panel -- due in part to a pair of promising antiviral treatments now in late-stage development -- but members ultimately reached agreement on the matter.

The second, independent panel of experts countered that smallpox stocks are not needed for further work on such treatments, and suggested that the virus may be artificially rebuilt if necessary.

WHO spokesman Glenn Thomas said the new expert panel would include specialists from the scientific and public-health sectors, as well as experts in other areas.

The group's specific mandate remains pending, and its still-undecided membership may become a hot-button issue in the debate over destroying the virus, according to Nature.

Smallpox was declared eradicated from nature in 1980. The United States and certain other governments have continued to call for additional countermeasures, in case a country or non-state actor releases the agent from a secretly held supply.

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