Health Officials Urged
to Destroy Smallpox
Stocks Immediately
By Gene Emery

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.