Protest against the development of GM smallpox to the World Health Organisation:
US scientists push for go-ahead to genetically modify smallpox virus
Sarah Boseley and Julian Borger in Washington
Monday, May 16, 2005
US scientists are awaiting World Health Assembly approval to begin experiments to genetically modify the smallpox virus, one of the most lethal organisms the planet has known.
Researchers have already been given the go-ahead by a technical committee of the World Health Organisation, which accepts the argument that the research could bring new vaccines and treatments for smallpox closer. This week the debate will pass for a final decision to the floor of the full assembly of the WHO, whose representatives from 192 member states begin a 10-day annual meeting in Geneva today.
Campaigners, backed by some scientists, have launched a late attempt to stop the assembly approving GM experiments on smallpox. They fear that the experiments would make the use of smallpox in bioterrorism more likely, and point to the fact that the assembly itself agreed 11 years ago to destroy all stocks of the virus.
One of the relaxations of the rules would allow small pieces of the virus' DNA to be distributed to laboratories around the world. Opponents say there is a serious risk that the pieces could be used in an artificial reconstruction of the virus, to be used in biological warfare.
Donald Henderson, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, United States, former director of the WHO's global smallpox eradication programme, says permitting the proposed experiments in an increased number of laboratories in today's world is unwise.
"The problem is that we have got a lot of people with a lot more talent working in biological laboratories around the world and a lot of them are very well-trained and the potential for mischief here is much greater," he said.
Smallpox was eradicated as a disease in 1977. Since then stocks of the virus have been permitted to remain in just two secure laboratories - the US government's Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow. Even so, they have not always been strictly under the control of the WHO. Russia in 1996 admitted that it had, without WHO permission, moved its stocks to Novosibirsk in Siberia.
The original date for destruction of all stocks was 1999, but both Russia and the US dragged their feet. The WHO then set up the Variola (smallpox) Advisory Committee to give the WHO scientific advice on what should and should not be permitted. The committee, known as VAC, has gradually shifted the position away from destruction. At its last meeting, in November, the committee recommended that US proposals for further experimentation on the live virus, including genetic modification, should be allowed.
Because of the sensitivity of the issue, the WHO's director general, Lee Jong-wook, reviewed the proposals. He rejected the recommendation to allow insertion of smallpox genes into related viruses, such as monkeypox and cowpox, but allowed four other experiments, including genetic modification, to go before today's full assembly for final approval.
The campaign for the total eradication of the virus is led by the Third World Network and the US-based Sunshine Project, who object that the advisory committee is unbalanced. Nearly two-thirds of those attending are from the US and Europe, with a further 14% from Russia. It is also, they say on their campaign website, "weighted towards scientists with a personal interest in conducting smallpox research".
Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, said: "The set of recommendations remains substantially unreviewed by experts in public health, safety of genetically modified organisms and preparedness for deliberate outbreaks of disease."
Scientists are divided over the benefits to be gained from further experiments. Anne Solomon, a biotechnology expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said knowledge about the genetic modification of viruses was so widespread that the US should start preparing counter-measures, particularly as there is no absolute certainty smallpox virus stocks will remain confined to the US and Russia.
"That capability is out there," Ms Solomon said. Professor Henderson, however, believes that even if there are illegal stocks somewhere, the world would be safer if the US and Russia destroyed what they have, and the UN made it a crime against humanity for any person, laboratory or country to keep the virus.