Reversing Policy, U.S. Will Not Destroy Smallpox Stock
The United States will not destroy its remaining stocks of smallpox until researchers "develop at least two licensed antiviral drugs, a vaccine that can be taken by the entire population and other defensive measures," officials in the Bush administration disclosed yesterday. The New York Times reports that the necessary research and development for such therapies could take years, "if not decades." The "shift" reverses a policy established by the Clinton administration to destroy all remaining smallpox virus by 2002 after consideration by the World Health Organization. Russia also has smallpox stored in a research lab in Siberia. The new U.S. policy does not set a deadline for the destruction of the virus, and "establis[hes] some stringent conditions, reflecting a new assessment of the dangers posed by bioterrorism." Administration officials said destroying the stockpile, currently housed in a CDC lab, "will not even be considered" until a new vaccine that can be administered to all Americans is produced. The current vaccine can not be given safely to people with HIV and other immune deficiencies. The plan also calls for the creation of a "reliable medical diagnostic tes[t]," "environmental detectors" and for health officials to develop methods to counter genetically altered strains of the virus. The Times reports that following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the subsequent anthrax cases, the White House "had no choice but to abandon the nation's longstanding commitment to eradicating the officially declared stocks as soon as possible." An interagency group comprised of officials from the Defense Department, State Department, HHS and other cabinet departments "endorsed the policy shift without reservation." A senior official said, "Are we going to do what we can to be prepared for what is one of the most consequential threats we face, or are we going to engage in feel-good measures that mask the real danger? ... The issue was straightforward."
The new policy could spur "a certain amount of ill will internationally," Jonathan Tucker, a bioterrorism expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington, D.C., said. He added that India and Brazil would "resent the American and Russian monopoly on the stocks," because the Clinton administration told those nations in 1999 that the United States would support the destruction of the virus after research was completed. "It was that compromise that permitted the agreement two years ago," Tucker said. Tucker called the new smallpox policy "too open-ended" and added that it would take "at least a decade to meet the new administration's criteria, and that is a conservative estimate." A committee made up of scientific experts is set to address the destruction of the smallpox virus early next month, if not sooner, the Times reports. During the meeting, if not before, the Bush administration's policy is expected to be formally unveiled (Miller, New York Times, 11/16).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.