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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