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New Scientist is reporting that a World Health Organization committee has approved “in principal” experiments with live smallpox virus. The goal is to improve vaccines and drugs. Before any experiments proceed, the decision must be approved by the WHO’s member countries at an assembly in May 2005. In addition, each individual experiment would have to be reviewed by the same advisory committee and local biosafety authorities.

The WHO declared smallpox eradicated in 1980, and the only stockpiles were kept at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at Vector, the Russian State Research Center for Virology. Any new smallpox outbreak would be due either to a lab accident or to a bioterror attack.

Other proposed experiments would insert smallpox genes into related viruses so that researchers could test drugs that target specific viral enzymes, helping to make sure a drug would work against the true smallpox enzyme. (Present treatment plans in case of an outbreak call for the use of antiviral drugs that have never been tested against smallpox.)

However, a leading expert has questioned the necessity of the tests. D.A. Henderson, who led the eradication drive and chairs the WHO’s committee on smallpox and related viruses, told New Scientist the research is “pointless.” His reasoning is pretty sound: any new drug or vaccine can’t be tested for efficacy in people, making them of dubious value. And, as Henderson points out, it’s unlikely anyone will spend the billions of dollars necessary to make and stockpile any of these new compounds. There’s a small chance the U.S. government could choose to spend that money. But if it does, it’s a clear case of stockpiling against a theoretical attack instead of spending money to help provide basic healthcare to millions of Americans in need.

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