Reprieve for the killer

  • 14/08/1999

Reprieve for the killer should the last known samples of the smallpox virus be destroyed or preserved for medical research? Or, should the vials of virus continue to remain in deep-freeze in case a future enemy develops it into a biological weapon? These are some of the questions at the heart of an on-going global controversy.

What triggered the debate is the reversal of the World Health Organisation's ( who) stand in 1996 to destroy the two known stocks of smallpox virus by June this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, usa and the Russian State Centre for Research on Virology and Biotechnology at Novosibirsk, somewhere in Siberia in the Russian Federation, can thus keep the virus at least till 2002. The who hopes that the virus can be used "for the purpose of further research of anti-viral agents and will permit high-priority investigations of the genetic structure and pathogenesis of smallpox'. The who' s decision comes close on the heels of a similar us decision of not destroying its stores of virus, taken in mid-April.

Why the panic? Smallpox is a fatal disease with no cure and a mortality rate of over 30 per cent. Its lethality, coupled with its absence for over 20 years, makes the disease a potentially biological weapon. In an unexposed population