[Documents menu] Documents menu

Date: Sat, 1 May 1999 21:55:13 -0500 (CDT)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: HEALTH: U.S. Won't Destroy Its Smallpox Stocks
Article: 62775
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.2280.19990502181607@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 499.0 **/
** Topic: HEALTH: U.S. Won't Destroy Its Smallpox Stocks **
** Written 3:36 PM Apr 28, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **

U.S. Won't Destroy Its Smallpox Stocks

By Jim Lobe, IPS, 25 April 1999

WASHINGTON, Apr 25 (IPS) - President Bill Clinton has decided against destroying the remaining US stocks of smallpox virus, claiming that, to do so, could harm scientific, health, and national security interests.

The decision, reached after lengthy internal debate, reverses a government pledge in 1996 to destroy the stocks by June, 1999 as part of a plan by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to achieve the final elimination of the smallpox virus.

WHO's governing body, the World Health Assembly, is scheduled to debate the issue when it meets in Geneva May 17. Although most members of the organisation reportedly favour the destruction of all existing stocks, the issue has divided both public-health and disarmament groups.

The biggest concern is over whether all existing stocks of the highly contagious virus have been recorded.

Many experts fear that stocks held by the former Soviet Union may have leaked out of the its main biological-weapons facility, the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, or VECTOR, in the Siberian city of Kotsovo.

Given the extensive research in which the Soviet Union was engaged, there are reasons to believe there may be other facilities in Russia where stocks are held, says Amy Smithson, a disarmament specialist and director of the Henry L. Stimson Centre here.

We need much more confidence that Russia and its scientists can account for all of those stocks and aren't handing proliferators this deadly disease, she says.

The White House administration has come to a similar conclusion.

The decision reflects our concern that we cannot be entirely certain that after we destroy the declared stocks in Atlanta and Koltsovo, we will eliminate all the smallpox virus in existence, says Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart.

With a mortality rate of about 30 percent, smallpox has been one of the world's deadliest diseases. Some 500 million people were killed by it from 1900 until 1978, when the last case was reported in Somalia.

The world was declared smallpox-free in 1980, with credit going to the world's most successful vaccination campaign that was overseen by WHO and national governments.

Laboratory stocks in many countries have since been eliminated.

Officially, there are only two laboraties left with stocks on hand: at VECTOR in Russia and at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In 1996, WHO recommended that remaining stocks be destroyed but delayed a final decision pending more scientific study.

Russia has opposed destroying the stocks, arguing that infectious diseases like smallpox should never be considered completely eradicated. Washington, which at first supported the WHO recommendation has now changed its mind.

Clinton cited two recent independent reports by the US Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences which concluded last month that retaining the virus could lead to new and important discoveries with real potential for improving human health.

Such discoveries could include the development of new anti- viral drugs to protect against any future outbreak of the disease and to learn more about and protect against diseases, like AIDS, which attack the human immune system, according to the reports.

Much of the concern that some smallpox stocks may survive outside the US and Russian centres is based on reports by a former senior VECTOR official, Ken Alibek, who defected to the United States in 1992.

In a recent book and in testimony here, Alibek says that the Soviet Union has produced dozens of tonnes of smallpox and other diseases during the Cold War. Russia also has succeeded in splicing genes from other viruses into smallpox to produce new microbes that might not be susceptible to existing vaccines, he says.

Moreover, Alibek is convinced that the Soviet biological weapons programme has not been completely dismantled.

He gives a very persuasive account, says Smithson, noting that many of the scientists who worked in the programme are now either under- or un-employed in Russia.

How long can they hold out when there are governments and sub- national groups knocking on their doors with real money? she asks.

Any new outbreak of smallpox could wreak a fearsome toll on a population which has never been vaccinated but some disarmament and health activists are worried about the decision to retain the stocks.

We should be working to eliminate research on biological weapons around the world, says Joe Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. To keep something like this around creates the impression that we're hedging our bets, and that encourages others to hedge theirs, too.

I find it very regrettable, declares Donald Henderson, a former White House science adviser who led the campaign to destroy the samples.

Of all the potential organisims that might be used in bioterrorism, this probably is the most formidable, and I think we should do everything we possibly can to mitigate against the risk of that virus being released at any time in any way.

Michael Moody, an expert at the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Virginia, agrees that the decision not to destroy represents a serious risk.

But the risks associated with moving towards final elimination could be even more serious given what we don't know about the the production and disposition of some stocks, he adds.