U.S. says it won't destroy its cache of smallpox virus

Only other known sample is stored in Russia

April 23, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration announced yesterday that the United States will retain its sample of smallpox virus, one of the only two known remaining in the world. The other is in Russia.

President Clinton, defying the World Health Organization, decided to preserve the stocks in case scientists need to develop new vaccines against a possible bioterrorist attack.

"We are relatively sure that most of the virus is in the two declared stocks, but we can't be certain," says Dr. Ken Bernard, of the National Security Council.

"There's just no way to ensure that if we destroy the two declared stocks that we will destroy every smallpox virus that exists."

The issue of what to do with the world's only known stocks has been under intense international debate for more than a decade.

Those urging destruction of the virus say there is no reason to retain it, since the scourge of smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1980. Keeping the virus raises the potential of its falling into the wrong hands and escaping into the environment, they say.

But others counter that this is precisely the reason to hang on to it -- that rogue countries have or could obtain secret stockpiles that could wreak serious disease and death in the event of a bioterrorist attack.

No one younger than 20 has been vaccinated against the disease; such vaccination, once routine, was abandoned two decades ago when the world officially was declared smallpox-free.

Proponents of keeping the virus say that further study of the samples could provide scientific information that could lead to more effective vaccines and drugs that do not exist today. There is no treatment for the disease.

The old vaccine is made of live, but weakened, virus and cannot be taken safely by everyone; also, advances in biotechnology in recent years make it possible to develop better vaccine products that do not contain live virus.

"Some argue that we already have a vaccine, but it's a crude vaccine," Bernard said. "We need to develop vaccines using new technology."

He said the administration budget proposal for fiscal 2000 includes $30 million for research into vaccines for anthrax -- another germ agent -- and smallpox.

Smallpox -- variola virus -- is highly contagious and very hardy, making it desirable to those waging germ warfare. It has killed untold millions of people over the centuries.

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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