An international alliance of non-governmental organizations has launched a campaign to urge the World Health Organization to reject a proposal that would permit the genetic engineering of smallpox and to instead ensure that all remaining stocks of the virus are destroyed within two years. Debate on the proposal will take place at the World Health Assembly (WHA), which meets in Geneva, Switzerland beginning on May 16th. The NGOs, led by Third World Network and The Sunshine Project, have opened a website, www.smallpoxbiosafety.org, where organizations and individuals can send letters to the WHO Director General. The website provides links to health ministries, so that people can also contact their government’s representatives to the WHA. The website is available in Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.
The proposal to genetically engineer smallpox, which would also permit smallpox genes to be inserted into related poxviruses and the unlimited distribution of small segments of smallpox DNA, poses a large number of public health, biosafety, and biological weapons risks. It was prompted by the United States, and has been recommended to the WHA through an imbalanced advisory committee. A Briefing Paper (The Genetic Engineering of Smallpox: WHO’s Retreat from the Eradication of Smallpox Virus and Why it Should be Stopped)at the website explains the political process that led to the proposal, the risks, and why it should be rejected. An edited excerpt from the paper that provides more background is appended to this news release.
Between now and the May opening of the WHA, the NGOs will be seeking to mobilize a wide variety of non-governmental organization and citizens. They will contact all member governments of WHO and urge them to reject the committee’s recommendations and to instead:
– Prohibit the genetic engineering of smallpox, the insertion of smallpox genes in other poxviruses, and any further distribution of smallpox genetic material for non-diagnostic purposes;
– Set a firm and irrevocable date, within two years, for the destruction of all remaining stocks of smallpox virus (including viral chimeras, or hybrids with other poxviruses);
– In the interim before destruction, ensure that the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research and its advisors are regionally balanced and that the Committee and its subsidiary groups conduct their oversight activities in a fully transparent and accountable manner.
Interested organizations and people are urged to visit www.smallpoxbiosafety.org to learn more about this issue and to send a letter to the WHO Director General.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is justly proud of the global effort that brought about the eradication of smallpox in 1977; but the truth of the matter is that the job was never finished. The United States and Russia still retain stocks of the smallpox virus (Variola major), an easily transmitted disease and ancient scourge of humanity that is a potent biological weapons agent. Smallpox kills one quarter or more of the people it infects and leaves many that do not die disfigured and blind.
In 1999, the remaining stocks of smallpox virus were slated for imminent destruction. But Russia and the US balked at the World Health Assembly (WHA) resolution calling upon them to destroy the virus. Instead, the US has accelerated smallpox research. Now, it wants open the Pandora’s Box of genetically-engineered smallpox. A plan to genetically engineer the virus could be approved by the World Health Assembly in May 2005. The plan also includes the expression of smallpox genes in related poxviruses, and unlimited distribution of segments of smallpox DNA. If implemented, this plan would pose serious biosafety risks and open the road to an artificial reconstruction of the virus for biowarfare purposes.
Fewer and fewer people, and their leaders, have personal memories of the horror of smallpox, or even the scars left by vaccination, which had ended in most countries by the late 1970s. As if the world is condemned to repeat history through forgetfulness, WHO has now lost the political will that it once had to finish the job of smallpox eradication. Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of WHO’s decision to leave oversight of smallpox research in the hands of an unbalanced and highly politicized “technical” advisory committee that is dominated by a small number of countries and scientists with a personal interest in pursuing smallpox research. It was US pressure that rammed the proposal for genetically-engineered smallpox through that committee, and now the World Health Assembly is in an inglorious position of being on the verge of endorsing what may prove to be the undoing of one its own greatest achievements.
Civil society and like-minded governments must urgently come together to turn the tide. The creation of genetically-engineered smallpox and hybrids of smallpox and other viruses (called chimera) pose serious public health, biosafety, and biological weapons dangers to the entire world. With increased smallpox experimentation, the world stands closer to the accident or deliberate act that would cause a release of the virus.
Because many poxviruses are closely-related to each other and, in their natural state frequently not entirely species-specific, the insertion of smallpox genes in related viruses has the potential to create dangerous new human (and animal) pathogens. Through genetic engineering or targeted mutations, labs that receive pieces of the smallpox genome may develop the ability to create smallpox or a novel virus with its characteristics without ever receiving an actual sample of Variola major. Moreover, laboratory safety practices and technology cannot erase human error and equipment failures that lead to accidents, as evidenced by a recent string of lab-acquired infections and environmental releases of SARS, Ebola, tularemia, and other dangerous diseases. In fact, the last reported human cases of smallpox were laboratory-acquired (see page 3 of the Briefing Paper – The Genetic Engineering of Smallpox: WHO’s Retreat from the Eradication of Smallpox Virus and Why it Should be Stopped).
Contained to only two labs in Russia and the US, smallpox has a unique multilateral research oversight structure that has no parallel with any other disease. Because of the unique situation of smallpox research, if WHO approves these experiments it will not only increase the threat posed by smallpox itself. WHO will also broadcast the signal that it is internationally acceptable to have genetic engineering of other germs, including experiments in which new and more dangerous forms may result – or even be intended.
If endorsed by the WHA, the intergovernmental encouragement of the creation of designer disease will come at a particularly dangerous time. Globally, the number of high containment facilities handling dangerous disease agents is expanding and the hazardous applications of biotechnology increasing. This is reflected in a growing number of lab accidents in a variety of countries in recent years involving highly pathogenic agents in high containment facilities. Particularly in the US, the scope and quantity of research on biological weapons agents is growing, and now exceeds the cost of the effort that created the atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project), adjusted for inflation.
Individuals and civil society organizations should take action and voice their opposition to WHO and their national public health authorities, urging them to reject the recommendations of the committee and to instead ensure prompt destruction of all remaining virus stocks. This briefing provides a political overview of smallpox eradication, the WHO processes that led to the present state of affairs, and related issues of biosafety and prohibitions on biological weapons. Smallpox Bio Safety