|Press Release WHO/77
10 December 1999
FUTURE RESEARCH ON SMALLPOX VIRUS RECOMMENDED
An international group of scientific and public health experts, meeting at the World Health Organization (WHO), this week recommended to the WHO Director-General undertaking some further research on the smallpox (variola) virus before the two remaining collections of the virus are destroyed. The research will focus on defined priority areas, will be time limited and will be carried out under very careful control of WHO.
The Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research met from 6 to 9 December 1999 at WHO headquarters in Geneva. The committee was established at the request of the May 1999 World Health Assembly and includes 16 members from 16 different countries, with representatives from all WHO regions (Africa, Americas, Eastern Mediterranean, Europe, South-East Asia and Western Pacific).
The primary objective of the meeting was to determine if further research on smallpox virus should be carried out in order to facilitate reaching a global consensus on the date for the destruction of the smallpox virus stocks. In their deliberations the experts defined the following areas in which research could usefully be conducted before the end of 2002: sequencing more completely the DNA of the smallpox virus; devising tests to detect smallpox infection in humans; and developing drugs to treat human smallpox infections, should they reappear.
A World Health Assembly resolution in May 1999 strongly reaffirmed the decision to destroy the remaining stocks of variola virus, but authorized temporary retention of the stocks up to the year 2002, subject to annual review. Extending the deadline for destruction of the stocks was to allow the possibility, if needed, of further international research.
During the Assembly meeting no clear consensus emerged amongst WHO Member States on whether or not the two remaining smallpox virus collections should be destroyed in June 1999, as had been proposed in 1996. Some countries felt that it would be premature to destroy the smallpox virus until further studies could be conducted.
The two remaining smallpox virus stocks, consolidated during the 1980s from a number of countries' laboratories, are held at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk Region, Russia and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, Georgia, United States. Both laboratories are WHO Collaborating Centres.
WHO will approve and review all future research on variola virus. As stipulated by the World Health Assembly, financing of research will be left to WHO Member States or other national or international bodies who may wish to support such work. This will ensure that WHO's resources for major public health problems, including malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other important infectious diseases, are not diverted to smallpox.
Over the longer term the Advisory Committee will devise a mechanism for reporting research results. Moreover, it will outline an inspection schedule to confirm the strict containment of existing smallpox virus stocks and to ensure a safe and secure research environment for the investigations that will be conducted.
The successful eradication of smallpox, declared in May 1980 by WHO, is often mentioned as the Organization's most spectacular public health achievement to date. Smallpox is the first disease ever to be eradicated world-wide after a huge international effort co-ordinated by WHO.
For further information, please contact Melinda Henry, Office of Press and Public Relations, WHO, Geneva. Tel. +41/22 791 25 35, Fax +41/22 791 48 58, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All press releases, fact sheets and WHO information can be found on the Internet at the WHO home page: http://www.who.int