- BOSTON (Reuters) - U.S. scientists argued that the few remaining stocks
of smallpox virus should be destroyed immediately, and not next year as
scheduled, to end the risk they will be stolen and used as biological weapons.
- Drs. Joel Breman of the National Institutes
of Health and D.A. Henderson of the Johns Hopkins University School of
Hygiene and Public Health wrote in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine
that the short supply of vaccine against smallpox would make any outbreak
of it "catastrophic."
- Facilities for making the vaccine have
been dismantled or converted to other uses, the two researchers said.
- The World Health Organization "should
call on all countries to destroy immediately all stocks" of the virus
as a message that the use of the virus "would be the most reprehensible
of crimes," the researchers said.
- "The threat posed by the possible
use of smallpox as a terrorist weapon is genuine," they said.
- Smallpox, which causes pus-filled blisters
all over the body, was driven to extinction by a relentless public health
campaign now considered to be one of modern medicine's greatest triumphs.
- A global scourge for centuries, smallpox
was wiped out continent by continent in a mass vaccination effort. The
last confirmed natural outbreak was in Somalia in 1977, and the disease
was declared eradicated in 1980.
- Only two repositories for the smallpox
virus are known to exist. One is at the quarantine facilities of the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and the other is the Russian
State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk
region of Russia.
- Both facilities are scheduled to destroy
their strains by June 1999, in line with a WHO recommendation issued in
May 1996 that allowed three years for researchers to comb the globe for
any forgotten or hidden stocks of the highly infectious agent.
- Some biologists have argued against their
destruction, saying that characteristics of the virus' genetic code may
carry useful traits for developing new vaccines against other diseases.
- But Breman and Henderson counter that
because most of the population has never been vaccinated against smallpox,
a terrorist attack using a stolen sample of the virus would have disastrous
consequences. The disease would be difficult to contain because vaccine
supplies are insufficient, they said.
- They estimated about one in four people
who contracted smallpox would die of it.
- They also said "the capacity for
large-scale manufacture of additional smallpox vaccine should be developed"
and plans should be made to cope with a terrorist attack using the virus.
- A less-deadly form found in monkeys,
called monkeypox, still persists in western and central Africa. It is far
less of a threat to humans because the disease is harder to contract, easier
to contain and the smallpox vaccine protects against it.