Ban Urged on Smallpox Studies

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Science  08 Apr 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5719, pp. 177
DOI: 10.1126/science.308.5719.177b

Two advocacy groups have launched a campaign to halt new studies on variola, the virus that causes smallpox. The Sunshine Project in Austin, Texas, and the Third World Network, headquartered in Penang, Malaysia, are urging the World Health Assembly (WHA), the supreme body of the World Health Organization (WHO), to ignore an expert panel and set a firm deadline for the destruction of the two remaining stocks during its annual meeting in Geneva in May.

In November, WHO's Advisory Committee on Variola Research recommended that work on variola continue and that researchers be allowed to insert a marker gene into the virus—to facilitate drug discovery—and to exchange genes of the variola genome and splice them into other poxviruses to study their function. On a new Web site in six languages (, the two groups claim that the work could lead to accidental releases of the agent or to the creation of even more dangerous viruses.

Although experts have long fought over whether to study or destroy variola (Science, 15 March 2002, p. 2005), it's rare for outsiders to enter the debate, notes smallpox expert Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington, D.C. The campaign's success may hinge on its ability to attract press attention before the WHA meeting, he adds.

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