Contact Us | Current Operating Status
Office of News and Public Information
Back | Home
News from the National Academies
Date: March 15, 1999
Contacts: Dan Quinn, Media Relations Officer
Kristen Nye, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>


Publication Announcement

Last Remaining Stores of Smallpox Virus
Have Potential Scientific Applications

Smallpox was declared officially eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1980 following an unprecedented 20-year international effort to defeat it. Since that time, WHO and others have debated whether to destroy or retain the last official stocks of the live variola virus that causes smallpox. These stocks are preserved in highly protected laboratories in Russia and in the United States.

A new report from a committee of the Institute of Medicine says that preserving the live virus may provide important scientific and medical opportunities that would not be available if it were destroyed. Of high priority would be the chance to develop new antiviral agents to protect citizens against a future outbreak of smallpox, which could occur, for example, as the result of a bioterrorist attack. An attack with smallpox could be especially lethal because people are no longer vaccinated against the disease, which is highly contagious and often results in death. The committee was not asked to conclude or recommend whether the variola stocks should be kept or destroyed but only to examine the potential scientific opportunities that an existent stock of virus provides.

Despite potentially important scientific opportunities related to variola virus, very little research has been conducted with it in the past 20 years. Part of the problem is the extreme virulence of the virus, which dictates that it be handled in maximum containment facilities, of which only two are operating in the United States. Additionally, there has been little public or private interest in or support for such research, the report says. Additional public resources would be needed if health officials decide to pursue the development of new antivirals.

Some important scientific opportunities available with the live virus include:

>Development of new antiviral agents. There is no effective agent for the treatment or prevention of variola other than vaccination within four days of infection, and supplies of the traditional vaccine which was the workhorse of the eradication effort, have dwindled.

>Development of novel types of smallpox vaccines for vaccination of immunocompromised patients.

>New insights into the human immune system. The variola virus reproduces only in humans. As the only uniquely human virus of its kind, it may reveal aspects of human biology that have important significance to biomedicine.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense. A committee roster follows. The Institute of Medicine is a private, non-profit organization that provides health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences.

Read the full text ofAssessment of Future Scientific Needs for Live Variola Virus for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Board on Global Health
Committee on the Assessment of Future Needs for Variola (Smallpox) Virus

        Charles C.J. Carpenter, M.D.(1) (chair)
        Professor of Medicine, and
        Director, International Health Institute
        Miriam Hospital, Brown University
        Providence, R.I.

        Ann M. Arvin, M.D.
        Professor, Pediatrics and Immunology/Microbiology
        Stanford University School of Medicine
        Stanford, Calif.

        R. Palmer Beasley, M.D.
        Dean and Ashbel Smith Professor of Epidemiology
        School of Public Health
        University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center

        Kenneth I. Berns, M.D., Ph.D.(1,2)
        Interim Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of the College of Medicine
        University of Florida, Gainesville

        Raphael Dolin, M.D.
        Dean, Office for Clinical Programs
        Harvard Medical School

        Myron E. Essex, D.V.M., Ph.D.(1)
        Professor of Health Sciences, and
        Chairman, Department of Immunology and Infectious Disease
        Harvard School of Public Health

        Diane E. Griffin, M.D., Ph.D.
        Professor and Chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology
        Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health

        Ashley T. Haase, M.D.
        Professor and Head, Department of Microbiology
        University of Minnesota Medical School

        Martin S. Hirsch, M.D.
        Professor of Medicine
        Harvard University Medical School

        Elliott D. Kieff, M.D., Ph.D.(2)
        Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and Medicine; Chair of the Virology Program; and Co-Director of Channing Laboratory
        Harvard University, and
        Director of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine
        Brigham and Women's Hospital

        Peter S. Kim, Ph.D.(2)
        Professor of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and
        Member, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

        Bernard Lo, M.D.(1)
        Professor of Medicine and Director of the Program in Medical Ethics
        University of California, San Francisco

        D. Grant McFadden, Ph.D.
        Director, Viral Immunology and Pathogenesis Laboratories
        Robarts Research Institute
        Ontario, Canada

        Bernard Moss, Ph.D., M.D.(2)
        Chief, Laboratory of Viral Diseases
        National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases
        National Institutes of Health
        Bethesda, Md.

        Richard W. Moyer, Ph.D.
        Professor and Chair, Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
        College of Medicine
        University of Florida, Gainesville

        Hidde L. Ploegh, Ph.D.
        Professor of Immunopathology
        Harvard Medical School, and
        Professor of Oncobiochemistry
        Free University
        Amsterdam, Netherlands

        Jack A. Schmidt, M.D.
        Senior Director of Immunology and Rheumatology
        Merck Research Laboratories
        Rahway, N.J.

        Richard J. Whitley, M.D.
        Professor and Loeb Scholar, Department of Pediatrics, Microbiology, and Medicine
        Children's Hospital
        University of Alabama, Birmingham

        Flossie Wong-Staal, Ph.D.(1)
        Director, AIDS Research Institute, and
        Florence Riford Professor of AIDS Research, Departments of Medicine and Biology
        University of California, San Diego


        Judith R. Bale, Ph.D.
        Director, Board on Global Health
        (1 Member, Institute of Medicine)
        (2 Member, National Academy of Sciences)