Two Teams of Global Scientists Fuel Dispute on Smallpox Virus

Article excerpt

Scientists revived on Thursday the dispute over whether to destroy laboratory stocks of the smallpox virus, which is responsible for a worldwide scourge that was finally eradicated in 1977.

Today's edition of the journal Science carries opposing views of two international teams of scientists on whether to eliminate the World Health Organization's stocks of smallpox.

In 1983, all official stocks of the virus either were destroyed or transferred to WHO laboratories in Moscow and Atlanta.

In 1990, the United States and the then-Soviet Union agreed to destroy the last specimens on Dec. 31 of this year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supervises a repository of about 450 smallpox virus samples from across the world. The Moscow archive holds 150 virus samples - from Brazil, Botswana, Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Tanzania and the former Soviet Union.

Arguing for destroying the stocks was a team of scientists who say the virus might be released accidentally, acquired by terrorists or used in biological warfare. They wrote:

"Destruction of the official WHO stocks would send the clearest possible signal to all countries that any work with live smallpox virus will from now on be punishable by national and international authorities and that the mere possession of such virus is illegal."

They argued that there was no scientific need to keep the stocks because at least two strains of smallpox have been genetically replicated, providing a smallpox archive for reference in case a similar virus ever took hold. …