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WHO defers decision on smallpox stocks

The World Health Organization’s top-decision making body, the World Health Assembly, said today it would defer until 2014 any decision on the destruction of the two last known remaining stocks of the virus that causes smallpox. A US-resolution calling for the stocks to be maintained for at least another five years ran into opposition led by Iran, resulting in deadlock last night after a day of negotiations.

A consensus to defer the decision was only reached after further negotiations this morning (today is the last day of the World Health Assembly). Shortly after the assembly decided to not decide, I spoke with Nils Daulaire, director of the Office of Global Health Affairs at the US Department of Health and Human Services, and head of the US delegation to the Geneva meeting. He says that Iran opposed in particular a clause in the US resolution that would have demanded that all countries affirm to WHO that they do not currently hold undeclared stocks of the virus.

Smallpox virus is held at two WHO-sanctioned repositories – the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, near Novosibirsk. After smallpox was officially eradicated in 1980, the WHO quickly reached a consensus that existing lab stocks should be destroyed to eliminate the risk of accidental release, and a deadline of 1993 was set. But the WHO has repeatedly pushed back the deadline under pressure from developed countries, including the United States, who want to continue research on the virus, in particular to develop countermeasures such as drugs, vaccines and diagnostics in case smallpox should reappear.

For more background, see my 13 May article in Nature – “”http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110513/full/news.2011.288.html">WHO to decide fate of smallpox stocks"

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