Open letter to EU on GE smallpox

The Institute of Science in Society
Science Society Sustainability

This article can be found on the I-SIS website at //

Dear all

For your information, Third World Network and the Sunshine Project have a campaign on-going to ensure that this year's World Health Assembly (WHA) (22-27 May 2006, Geneva) adopts a strong resolution on the destruction of smallpox virus stocks, including prohibiting the genetic engineering of smallpox.

We have recently sent the letter below to all the EU Health Ministers .We hope that Europe can take a lead in ensuring a good outcome at the WHA. Please feel free to use/forward on the letter.

More information is available from
with best wishes

Lim Li Ching

Third World Network

10 May 2006

Dear EU Ministers of Health and EC Health Commissioner,

We write to urge the European Union and its Member States to support a resolution at the upcoming 59th World Health Assembly (WHA) (22-27 May 2006) that fixes a new date for the destruction of all remaining stocks of smallpox (variola) virus, that prohibits genetic engineering of smallpox and distribution of viral DNA for non-diagnostic purposes and which withdraws WHA authorization for the retention of virus stocks for the already accomplished purposes of sequencing and development of diagnostics and vaccines.

Since natural transmission of smallpox was ended in 1977, World Health Organization (WHO) Member States have sought eradication of the virus by the destruction of remaining virus stocks. Early efforts to reduce the number of institutions holding such stocks met with success, and today variola virus is held at only two WHO Collaborating Centres, in Russia and the United States.

Despite WHA resolutions that these stocks be destroyed, neither the US nor Russia has done so. In 2002 the WHA began to slide backwards in its determination to see smallpox eradicated, most notably in Resolution 55.15, wherein it approved an overbroad smallpox research agenda and simultaneously ceased to insist on a deadline for destruction of the stocks.

The foreseeable result of the WHA's retreat were the recommendations tabled by the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research in 2005. The Committee recommended approval of genetic engineering of smallpox, insertion of smallpox genes in other orthopoxviruses, and unlimited distribution of smallpox DNA segments. These recommendations collectively could result in the creation of viruses even more dangerous than smallpox and are potentially tantamount to permitting distribution of smallpox virus itself - an unravelling of decades of to eradicate this most dangerous virus.

While the Advisory Committee, at the urging of the WHO Director-General, has since withdrawn its recommendation to permit insertion of smallpox genes into other orthopoxviruses, many more steps must be taken for the WHA to return to the path of virus destruction. We therefore urge you to take the following steps at the 2006 WHA:

Prohibition of Genetic Engineering of Smallpox and Distribution of Smallpox DNA for Non-Diagnostic Purposes: In 2005, many objections were raised to these recommendations and, in response, the WHO Secretariat took special note of these objections. Yet the Advisory Committee has not reconsidered these recommendations and their status is dangerously ill-defined. The 59th WHA should remedy this situation by specifically directing the Director-General, in a resolution, to reject a) any smallpox genetic engineering experiment and b) any distribution of smallpox DNA for non-diagnostic purposes. Consequently, the Advisory Committee should be requested to withdraw these two proposals.

End WHA Authorization for the Retention of Smallpox Virus for DNA Sequencing, Diagnostics and Vaccines: Broad agreement exists that sufficient sequences of smallpox strains have been obtained, rapid and accurate diagnostics have been developed, and that effective vaccines exist that do not require the smallpox virus. Therefore, the WHA should bring to an end research involving live smallpox virus on these items by explicitly withdrawing its temporary authorization for the retention of smallpox virus stocks for these three purposes in its resolution.

Establishment of a New Destruction Date for Smallpox Virus: The remaining smallpox virus stocks will never be destroyed without a new date being fixed. For four years, the two smallpox virus research programmes have operated without a destruction date and, in that time, they have sought to further expand permitted smallpox virus research, rather than stepping toward consensus on a destruction date. A new date of destruction for all remaining smallpox virus stocks should be set, preferably by 30 June 2008; but no later than 30 June 2010.

Reform of the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research: The Advisory Committee has failed in its task of implementing WHA's mandate to control variola virus research and to determine what research, if any, is essential. Only at its seventh meeting did it move to take basic steps required to oversee a research programme (such as a format and presentation and review of proposals) and, alarmingly, it had to request that the repositories submit descriptions of ongoing research. The Advisory Committee and its advisors are not geographically and scientifically balanced, it lacks transparency, and it is principally funded by a single Member State.

In its resolution in 2006, the WHA should open the Advisory Committee's meetings to non-governmental observers, improve representation from developing countries, and better balance the committee by increasing the representation of public health fields. It should also be expressly required to report all new recommendations and the implementation of prior recommendations to the WHA. This should include all approved research proposals, safety documentation, and research results. These important reforms may be undertaken as directions to the Director-General.

In particular, the European Union and its Member States could play a key role, by helping to diversify the Advisory Committee's sources of funding. This could include voluntary contributions from European WHO Member States for the operations of the Committee, for example, to fund travel costs for developing country Committee members, advisors, and observers. Alongside other reforms, this could help rectify the imbalances evident in attendance at the Committee's meetings to date.

Smallpox will never be truly eradicated if WHO Member States do not confront the final hurdle of ensuring that the remaining stocks of smallpox virus are destroyed. This year there are particular opportunities, as the WHA will consider a draft resolution that contains (sometimes in brackets) many of the steps that we have asked you to support in this letter.

We urge the European Union and its Member States to step forward and to work with developing countries to put the smallpox virus stocks back on a fast track to destruction.


Martin Khor

Edward Hammond

Third World Network
The Sunshine Project


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