WHO Committee Recommends Allowing Genetic Manipulation of Smallpox Virus
The World Health Organization announced Thursday that its 20-member international advisory committee recommended last week that Russian and U.S. scientists be allowed to manipulate a gene in the smallpox virus to develop treatments more quickly, the New York Times reports. The research at two laboratories in Russia and the United States would involve the insertion of a green fluorescent marker protein into viruses, a process which would not alter the virulence of the virus. The technique is a "standard way to screen for potential antiviral drugs," according to the Times.
Officials called the recommendation the first step in what could be a "lengthy" research approval process, which would include approval from the agency's director general, an executive board that meets in January and member countries scheduled to meet in May, according to the Times. The issue also could be referred to other committees at any time. The proposed research would be "fundamentally different" than a proposal last year to take single genes from the smallpox virus and insert them into other viruses, the Times report. That proposal was rejected over concerns it might accidentally create a more potent version of the disease, which could be used as a bioterrorism agent, according to WHO official Daniel Lavanchy. A vaccine can prevent contraction of smallpox, but the disease has no known treatments. Cidofovir is the only medication that has been identified as a possible candidate for treating the disease, and the research would aim to identify "a number of additional candidate drugs," according to the Times. U.S. smallpox stockpiles are stored at CDC headquarters in Atlanta (Altman, New York Times, 11/12).
The recommendation has "reignited a debate over whether such research will help or hinder bioterrorism defenses," the AP/Houston Chronicle reports. Dr. Ken Alibeck, a former scientist in the Soviet biological weapons program, said the advisory committee made "absolutely the right decision. The bad guys already know how to do it. So why prohibit legitimate researchers?" However, Sujatha Byravan of the Council for Responsible Genetics said, "We have seen no evidence of a threat that would justify this research. A decade ago, the WHO was planning to destroy the world's last remaining samples. Today, it is proposing to tinker with the virus in ways that could produce an even more lethal smallpox strain. This is a devastating step backwards" (Elias, AP/Houston Chronicle, 11/12).
NPR's "Morning Edition" on Thursday reported on WHO's decision. The segment includes comments from Parney Albright, assistant secretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security; Dr. Mark Buller, a microbiologist at St. Louis University; and D.A. Henderson, chair of the HHS Council on Public Health Preparedness during Bush's first term (Kestenbaum, "Morning Edition," NPR, 11/11). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.