By Robert James Parsons
GENEVA (Reuters Health) – The World Health Organisation's Executive Board today unanimously agreed that the world's two known smallpox virus stocks should be kept intact for the time being. The decision will be transmitted to the Organisation's annual World Health Assembly in May for approval by member states.
An Assembly resolution in 1999 had authorised retention of the stocks up to but not later than 2002. Speaking to Reuters Health, Dr. David Heymann, head of the WHO's contagious diseases department, recalled the progress on research on smallpox that has taken place since that resolution.
"Because of that progress," he said, "and because of events that occurred in the world in 2001 that involved the deliberate use of microbiological agents, the virus should be retained for further research to develop new or improved vaccines and antiviral drugs."
The United States delegation firmly backed both the decision and the WHO secretariat report underpinning it. Dr. Ken Bernard, United States Assistant Surgeon General, told the Board, "We regard an intentional release of smallpox as a critical national and international issue," and went on to declare that "a case of smallpox anywhere in the world is a case everywhere."
He insisted that both antiviral drugs and vaccines are needed against unreported virus stocks that could be released by terrorists. He pointed out that new drugs and vaccines are particularly needed in parts of the world with large numbers of immune-suppressed persons, who would be particularly vulnerable.
For his part, WHO's Dr. Heymann reiterated, and elaborated on, the list of activities the WHO has underway in this regard. These include maintaining the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research to further smallpox research, which according to the secretariat's report "should be conducted in an open and transparent manner".
The Committee is to submit a report to both the Executive Board and the Assembly in two to three years on its progress and research. The report should include an assessment of the status of development and regulatory approval of new and improved vaccines, antiviral drugs and diagnostic tests. In light of these considerations a recommendation will be made on the need to retain yet further the live virus for these purposes.
Also, the WHO will continue to ensure that research and its results and benefits are made available to all member states, to pursue routine activities with smallpox such as the global monitoring of smallpox rumours, to update its web site on how to respond to smallpox, to conduct the global inventory of vaccine stocks and manufacturers willing to produce vaccines, and to strengthen laboratories providing diagnostic capabilities and get those capabilities to the countries that need them.