Global Trends by Martin Khor

11 April 2005                                                             

Reject genetic engineering of smallpox, NGOs urge WHO

A campaign has been launched to request the World Health Organization (WHO) not to proceed with a project involving the genetic engineering of the smallpox virus and instead to ensure that all remaining stocks of the
virus are destroyed within two years.

A proposal to the WHO to allow the genetic modification of small pox virus was first initiated by the United States at a WHO technical advisory committee, which recommended its acceptance to the WHO's executive board.  The proposal will come before the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May. 

"The proposal to genetically engineer smallpox, which would also permit smallpox
genes to be inserted into related poxviruses and the unlimited distribution of small
segments of smallpox DNA, poses a large number of public health, biosafety, and
biological weapons risks," warned Edward Hammond, Director of the US office of
The Sunshine Project, an international NGO that specializes in research on biological

Co-sponsors of the NGO campaign include the Sunshine Project, the Third World Network, the Edmonds Institute, the Council for Responsible Genetics, Accion Ecologica, Institute of Science in Society.

According to the NGOs' briefing paper, while the WHO is justly proud of the global
effort that brought about the eradication of smallpox in 1977, the truth is that the job
was never finished.  The US and Russia still retain stocks of the smallpox virus
an easily transmitted disease that is also a potent biological weapons agent.

Smallpox kills one quarter or more of the people it infects and leaves many who do
not die disfigured and blind. The virus is thought to have killed around 300 million
people in the 20th Century alone. In the 1960s, it still killed more than 2 million
people every year.

Smallpox was defeated by a WHO-led public health surveillance and targeted
vaccination programme that began in 1967. The final natural outbreak occurred in
Somalia's Kurtunwaarey District in October 1977.

The NGO paper gives an account of the process that led to the proposal for genetic
engineering of the smallpox virus, the risks, and why it should be rejected.  The paper
said that in 1999, the remaining stocks of smallpox virus were slated for imminent
destruction on 30th June. But Russia and the US balked at the WHA resolution
calling for them to destroy their stocks of the virus.

Under pressure, the WHA then agreed to a time-limited "temporary retention" of live
smallpox, rescheduling destruction for 2002. However, in May 2002, the WHA again
yielded on the smallpox destruction deadline by agreeing to an indefinite extension
of the destruction order, until the US and Russia completed research including the
development of new anti-viral drugs, a new vaccine, sequencing more strains of
smallpox, and developing a monkey model of human smallpox infection, said the
NGO briefing paper.

In the meantime, the US has accelerated smallpox research and now wants to open
the Pandora's Box of genetically-engineered smallpox, said the NGOs. In December
2001, the US first proposed to genetically engineer smallpox and to insert smallpox
genes in other poxviruses.

And in January 2005, the WHO Executive Board agreed to forward recommendations
that would permit the US experiments, to the WHA. However, because of controversy
including in the media when the recommendations were first made public in
November 2004, the WHO Director General also announced that he would conduct
a study of the issue.

Little is known about this study.  However, said the briefing paper, it will presumably
be tabled prior to the World Health Assembly in May 2005, when a decision will be

If the proposal is implemented, the NGOs foresee that it would pose serious biosafety
risks and could moreover open the road to an artificial reconstruction of the virus for
biowarfare purposes. They also fear that the WHO now seems to have lost the
political will that it once had to finish the job of smallpox eradication.

According to Hammond, much of the blame can be laid at the doors of the WHO: its
decision to leave oversight of smallpox research in the hands of an imbalanced and
highly politicized "technical" advisory committee known as the Variola Advisory
Committee (VAC). Set up in 1999, the VAC is dominated by a small number of
countries and scientists with a personal interest in pursuing smallpox research. US
pressure eventually pushed the proposal for genetically-engineered smallpox through
that committee, he said.

At a December 2001 meeting of the VAC, the first discussion of the US proposal to
genetically engineer smallpox took place.  It concluded that a detailed risk analysis
was necessary. At a VAC meeting in November 2002, the US returned with proposals
to genetically engineer smallpox and to insert smallpox genes in other poxviruses.
The VAC responded by establishing a new subsidiary body, the Technical Panel.

In 2003, the Panel developed recommendations conducive to the US research
proposals, and which allowed inserting smallpox genes into related poxviruses and
genetic engineering of the smallpox virus itself. The Technical Panel as of late 2004
comprised of two Americans, two Europeans, one Canadian, and one Russian.

In November 2004, the VAC approved the Technical Panel's recommendations,
and in January this year, the WHO Executive Board forwarded the VAC
recommendations to the World Health Assembly, which is expected to take a decision
in May.

The NGOs want the WHA to reject the proposal.  "The creation of genetically-engineered smallpox and hybrids of smallpox and other viruses (called chimera) pose serious public health, biosafety, and biological weapons dangers to the entire world," Hammond said.

According to the NGOs, the proposal raises two serious biosafety issues: the
accidental escape of the smallpox virus during experimental lab work, and the
potential construction of dangerous new viruses through genetic engineering.

The NGOs fear that with increased smallpox experimentation, the world would stand
closer to either an accidental or a deliberate act that would cause a release of the virus.

As many poxviruses are closely-related to each other and, in their natural state,
frequently not entirely species-specific, the insertion of smallpox genes in related
viruses has the potential to create dangerous new human (and animal) pathogens.

Through genetic engineering or targeted mutations, laboratories that receive pieces
of the smallpox genome may develop the ability to create smallpox or a novel virus
with its characteristics without ever receiving an actual sample of Variola major.

Moreover, as Hammond points out, "laboratory safety practices and technology
cannot erase human error and equipment failures". These can lead to accidents, as
evidenced by a recent string of lab-acquired infections and environmental releases of
SARS, Ebola, tularemia, and other dangerous diseases. In fact, the last reported
human cases of smallpox were laboratory-acquired.

The NGOs fear that if the proposal is endorsed by the WHA, the intergovernmental
encouragement of the creation of genetically-engineered disease agents will come at
a particularly dangerous time.

Globally, the number of high containment facilities handling dangerous disease agents
is expanding and the hazardous applications of biotechnology are increasing. This is
reflected in a growing number of laboratory accidents in a variety of countries in
recent years involving highly pathogenic agents in high containment facilities.

According to Hammond, the scope and quantity of research on biological weapons
agents are growing, particularly in the US, and now exceeds the cost of the effort that
created the atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project), adjusted for inflation.

The NGOs are urging the member states of the WHO to reject the committee's
recommendations and instead:

* Prohibit the genetic engineering of smallpox, the insertion of smallpox genes in
other poxviruses, and any further distribution of smallpox genetic material for
non-diagnostic purposes;

* Set a firm and irrevocable date, within two years, for the destruction of all
remaining stocks of smallpox virus (including viral chimeras, or hybrids with other

* In the interim before destruction, ensure that the WHO Advisory Committee on
Variola Virus Research and its advisors are regionally balanced and that the
Committee and its subsidiary groups conduct their oversight activities in a fully
transparent and accountable manner.