The Checkered History of Smallpox Research at Vector

Article excerpt

In 1994 the Russian government unilaterally transferred the smallpox virus stocks under its control to the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology "Vector," which subsequently became one of the two WHO-approved repositories. Because of the financial crisis that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, Vector suffered deep budget cuts and thus lacked the resources to fund its own research with the live smallpox virus. After the World Health Assembly in 1999 authorized the development of medical countermeasures against smallpox, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)'s Biotechnology Engagement Program and the Department of Defense's Cooperative Threat Reduction program channeled funds for smallpox research at Vector through the Moscow-based International Science and Technology Center (ISTC). In addition to financing the renovation of the Russian smallpox repository and laboratory to upgrade its safety and security, the ISTC grants supported several research projects, including work by Sergei N. Shchelkunov and Igor V. Babkin on the genetic characterization of representative smallpox virus strains from the Russian collection, by Evgeny Belanov on the screening of candidate antiviral drugs for activity against the smallpox virus, and by other Vector scientists on the development of new smallpox diagnostic tools.

In 2002, due to lingering concerns about Vector's past involvement in the Soviet biological warfare program, the U.S. Congress sought to increase the transparency of Russian smallpox research by insisting, as a condition of renewed ISTC funding, that U.S. scientists work side-by-side with their Russian colleagues. Although a few U.S. virologists were trained to use Russian biosafety equipment at Vector, the host government never approved the three collaborative research projects that Washington had proposed and in 2004 the ISTC projects became inactive. In May 2005, Vector was classified as a Federal State Research Institution and placed under the control of the Russian Ministry of Health's Federal Inspection Agency for Consumer and Human Welfare Protection. The agency's new head, Gennady G. Onishchenko, fired Vector's director-general, Lev S. Sandakhchiev, who had promoted extensive scientific collaboration with the West, and replaced him with an old-school scientific bureaucrat named Ilyia G. Drozdov.

Since 2005 the HHS has pressed the Russian Ministry of Health to negotiate an extension of ISTC funding for the three joint smallpox research projects at Vector. But despite the personal intervention of then-HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, who agreed to drop the condition that U.S. collaborating scientists be resident and to require only periodic visits, approval from Moscow has not been forthcoming. Meanwhile, the transparency of smallpox research at Vector has declined sharply. Russian virologists who formerly interacted freely with their U.S. colleagues have either stopped attending the annual meetings in Geneva of the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research or have become far more circumspect. …