Friday, May 27, 2011

Big Dilemma Over Smallpox

Smallpox virus (Variola vera) has been one of the most horrific diseases to afflict humanity.  Fortunately, worldwide vaccination programs appear to have eradicated it among humans.  However, both the United States and Russia maintain carefully-guarded stocks of the virus for research purposes.  Over the years, international pressure to destroy these last laboratory stocks of smallpox virus has been building.  Many assumed that the World Health Assembly, the decision making body of the United Nations World Health Organization, which held its 64th conference from May 16th to 24th, 2011, would vote to do just that, thus consigning Variola vera to the dustbin of disease history.  Instead, the Assembly granted the virus a stay of execution until at least 2014: 
Reaffirmed that the remaining stock of smallpox virus should be destroyed 
The Health Assembly strongly reaffirmed the decision of previous Assemblies that the remaining stock of smallpox (variola) virus should be destroyed when crucial research based on the virus has been completed. The state of variola virus research will be reviewed at the 67th World Health Assembly in 2014 and in light of that, determining a date for destruction of the remaining virus stocks will be discussed.

Bioethicists disagree about whether or not to destroy the virus.  As long as it survives, the risk of its release - either accidental or deliberate - will persist.  If it is destroyed, the best opportunity to derive future insights into its, and other disease organisms', biology may be forgone forever.  In the meantime, the virus that has taken about half a billion lives in recent history will continue to hang, like the Sword of Damocles, over the future health of humanity.

More biolaw at LEXVIVO.  


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