The resolution by World Health Organisation (WHO) to hold on to the two last known remaining stocks of the smallpox virus for “crucial research” raises the spectre of bioterrorism, warns Dr Kalyan Banerjee, former director, National Institute of Virology, Pune.
“If the destruction is delayed indefinitely, the synthesis and preparation of smallpox virus as a bio-weapon, by a non-superpower would increase and it may truly become a poor man’s atom bomb,” says Dr Kalyan Banerjee.
WHO’s decision-making body World Health Assembly announced on Tuesday that it would defer until 2014 any decision on the destruction of the two remaining stocks of the virus since “crucial research” based on the virus remains to be completed.
After smallpox was officially eradicated in 1980, all countries were asked to surrender their stocks of the virus to the WHO to prevent accidental release. Currently the virus is held at two WHO-sanctioned repositories — US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and a Russian facility in Koltsovo in Siberia.
The debate over whether or not to destroy these two last samples had been going on since 1980. But WHO has constantly been postponing the date of destruction under pressure from US and Russia that wanted to retain the samples until the needed research was complete to develop new drugs and vaccines to counter a potential bioterror attack.
“In my opinion, the world will gain much more by destroying the last traces of the virus than by keeping it,” said Dr Kalyan Banerjee who himself was former member of a WHO advisory committee on smallpox research and now a committee adviser.
“The arguments tendered in favour of retaining the virus appear to be unconvincing,” Dr Kalyan Banerjee told IANS. “To put it bluntly, it is the same logic, by which the superpowers continue the possession of the nuclear weapons; they wish to hold on to the smallpox virus as a super bio-weapon.”
“The research is being drawn on and on, but research cannot be made a tool or apology for the indefinite retention of the virus,” Dr Kalyan Banerjee said.
The existing vaccine (the classical Lister strain) has a proven record of preventing the spread of the virus and curtailing the epidemic and even if they develop a new vaccine, it cannot be used in the case of emergency, Dr Kalyan Banerjee said. And no live variola virus is necessary to develop new drugs since such studies can be done with monkeypox or mousepox viruses, which belong to the same family of variola virus that causes smallpox.
According to Dr Kalyan Banerjee, the smallpox researchers wished to sequence one strain each of “variola major” and “variola minor” essentially for archival purposes. “But now more than 40 strains have been fully sequenced and if I am correct it is planned to sequence all the strains. The researchers wish to go on and on (without end).”
Another leading Indian virologist agrees. As far as smallpox virus is concerned, “I think we know enough and, all in all, I am in favour of first evolving rules and then destroying (the virus stocks),” said Dr Jacob John at Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore.
Dr Kalyan Banerjee argues that continued retention of the smallpox virus no longer serves any essential public health purpose. “As today, the likelihood of smallpox virus as a bio weapon by a non-superpower is nil. The destruction of the virus at CDC or Russia would definitely reduce any chance of any mischief by mischief makers. Immediate destruction of the smallpox virus is the best policy.”
“I firmly believe that not only the smallpox virus stocks but also infected materials (like blood, tissues, tissue culture fluids, etc) which have been generated through several years of experimentation should also be destroyed,” Dr Kalyan Banerjee said.