GENEVA — The United States has proposed that the last known stockpiles of the smallpox virus should be retained for at least another five years to allow for more research and prevent one of the world’s deadliest diseases from being used as a biological weapon.
Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services secretary, told reporters yesterday that the World Health Organization has been asked to decide whether the stockpiles held in secure US and Russian labs should remain in place for at least another five years, when experts could again review the situation.
At a news conference at the UN’s European headquarters, where the World Health Assembly also was debating the matter, Sebelius said the United States is “committed to the eventual destruction’’ of the stockpiles but fears that smallpox could still reemerge if it were released unintentionally or deliberately used as a biological weapon. Scientists would need the virus to create a vaccine.
An aide to Sebelius, Bill Hall, later said that the United States would not act unilaterally, but would await the outcome of a vote on the US proposal in the Geneva-based assembly.
For centuries, smallpox killed about a third of the people it infected, but it was eradicated from the environment three decades ago. The last known case was in Britain in 1978.
Many countries say the world would be safer if the remaining stockpiles of the virus — held at US federal facilities in Atlanta and at a Russian research center in Koltsovo — were destroyed. At the meeting this week, some of WHO’s member countries again pushed to set a date for the virus’s destruction, the fifth year they have made such an attempt.
The UN health agency first agreed in 1996 that smallpox should be destroyed, though it lacks the power to enforce the decision.