Destruction of remaining samples of deadly smallpox virus is postponed

January 19, 1995|By New York Times News Service

The smallpox virus got an unexpected stay of execution yesterday from the governing board of the World Health Organization.

The last known stocks of the deadly virus were to be destroyed in June, but the latest decision puts off its demise for at least a year, and perhaps indefinitely.

In 1980, after a worldwide vaccination program, the World Health Organization declared the eradication of natural smallpox, one of the biggest killers in history. But samples of the virus have been kept frozen in laboratories in the United States and Russia.

All three committees of experts asked by WHO, a U.N. agency, to review the future of the samples recommended destruction once the molecular structure of three strains was mapped. That was completed, and destruction was initially planned for December 1993.

But because of a growing sentiment that further research on the virus could be beneficial in studying other infections and possibly even cancer, the organization delayed that execution.

The World Health Organization asked for another review, and last September it voted unanimously to destroy the virus. It set June 30, 1995, as the date for simultaneous destruction of the samples in the United States and in Russia, although two of the 10 members of the review panel favored delaying execution for five years.

Two hurdles still needed to be cleared: approval by the agency's executive board, and a final decision by World Health Organization members at their annual meeting in May.

But yesterday the board failed to reach a consensus after Britain led behind-the-scenes efforts to postpone further discussion of destruction, health experts said.

The United States supported destruction of the virus in 1990 when then-secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Louis Sullivan, said, "There is no scientific reason not to destroy the remaining stock of the wild virus."

But recently there has been a division of opinion among federal agencies: The Defense Department favored preserving the virus; the Department of Health and Human Services favored destroying it.

Yesterday, the board chairman, Dr. Jesus Kumate of Mexico, proposed reopening the issue at a future meeting, but he did not set a date.

Dr. Ralph H. Henderson, an assistant director-general of WHO, said the organization had not received any formal opposition to the recommendations that the virus be destroyed. "We were asked to defer it," Dr. Henderson said, "and we are not very pleased, since we support very much our technical recommendations and we are standing by our technical committee."

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