Nations May Revisit Key Point in Smallpox Destruction Debate

World Health Organization Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda, shown at a press conference last week. Staffers at Fukuda's agency have called for a new assessment of emerging technologies potentially capable of constructing smallpox from scratch.
World Health Organization Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda, shown at a press conference last week. Staffers at Fukuda's agency have called for a new assessment of emerging technologies potentially capable of constructing smallpox from scratch. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

The World Health Organization may re-examine the possible threat of smallpox being built from scratch, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The agency's multinational governing body is set on Friday to consider taking a new look at emerging technologies capable of recreating the virus. The WHO Secretariat called for the review, arguing that developments in the field have "potential implications" for studies of smallpox, as well as an ongoing debate over eliminating the final known virus stockpiles in Russia and the United States.

"A group of experts [should] provide an up-to-date assessment of those technologies and their potential impact on smallpox preparedness and countermeasure development," the Secretariat said in its proposal to the World Health Assembly.

Synthetic-biology technologies have been invoked by advocates of retaining the virus for a longer period, as well as those in favor of rapidly destroying the remaining stocks. According to members of the latter group, an ability to construct the virus artificially would eliminate any relevance of laboratory stockpiles.

A senior U.S. health official, though, said new systems may be capable of designing and building a smallpox strain invulnerable to medical treatments now in preparation.

"We think it's premature to set a certain date [for destruction]," said Jimmy Kolker, assistant secretary for global affairs at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

Moscow also wants to retain the remaining smallpox stocks into the future.

"We base our position on the assessments of leading experts that the development of effective drugs against this extraordinarily dangerous infection is impossible without retaining the special collection of strains that we have," a Russian health ministry spokesman said in an e-mail statement.

"We will continue a constructive discussion on this question with international partners, taking into account advances in biology and medicine," the official said.

May 22, 2014
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The World Health Organization may re-examine the possible threat of smallpox being built from scratch, the Wall Street Journal reports.