Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Pandora's Pox 

The President's "Project Bioshield" initiative allocated $5.6 billion for research into new vaccines -- and as a result, pharmaceutical companies are clamoring to get their hands on America's frozen samples of smallpox. From the MIT Technology Review:
Fears about bioweapons have caused the United States to push the World Health Organization to open smallpox virus stores, which have been frozen since 1984 at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

In early November, an advisory committee recommended that researchers be allowed to work with variola, the virus that causes smallpox, to develop new preventions and treatments for the disease, a step that some view as necessary to repel a potential bioterrorist attack. However, the move could also increase the risk of accidental or surreptitious release of the virus . . . .

For researchers, the tricky debate -- which flared again after the September 11 terrorist attacks -- has been going for years. Smallpox is an acute, extremely contagious disease that killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone. Symptoms are devastating: fever, blindness, and painful, pus-filled blisters that leave scars 30 percent of victims don’t live to see.

Raymond Zalinskas, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said he is ambivalent about new studies. The threat is relatively remote, he said, so why increase the numbers of people handling variola, which increases the chance of a disaster? On the other hand, further study could prevent an outbreak or provide therapy if one occurred . . . .

When scientists finally eliminated the scourge of smallpox in 1980, many researchers thought the best next step would be to destroy the remaining samples of variola, and wipe the disease from the face of the earth.

The WHO decided in 1984, though, to keep two samples in the form of scabs and other cells from infected individuals: one in a Siberian lab called Vector and the other at the CDC in Atlanta.

Then, what many feared would happen, became a reality. While the CDC samples remained sealed, Russian scientists were busy re-engineering the virus during the cold war. Vats of super-virulent smallpox were then placed in missiles and pointed at the United States.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the vats were reportedly destroyed.

Ken Alibek, a former bioweapons researcher in Russia, suggested in his 1999 book Biohazard that desperate-for-work scientists may have sold samples to rogue nations.

No one is thrilled about the prospect of poking at preserved smallpox scabs, but many believe that the present vaccine would not sufficiently protect Americans against an outbreak. They figure the risks inherent in opening up research are worth the potential benefit of discovering new vaccines or treatments.
One proposal currently before the WHO would allow Russia and America to pool their samples so that research teams from both countries could work collaboratively. A decision on whether to open up the freezers should be handed down by May of next year.

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