Op-Ed – Smallpox Debate, A Reasonable Outcome, Moving Faster Toward Resolution


Victoria Sutton, MPA, PhD, JD, Professor and Director
Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy
Texas Tech University School of Law

On May 16-24, 2011, the World Health Assembly debated the destruction of the last smallpox that exists, officially. This meeting is the fourth meeting, convening every five years, to review the question of whether to destroy the last remaining smallpox.

The two nations holding the remaining samples are the United States and Russia, and are the only two WHO member nations arguing against destruction. The WHO requested a briefing paper last year, in order to inform the discussion at this year’s 64th World Health Assembly, and it reads, “The two countries that retain variola virus do so not for any defensible or essential public health reason. They do so out of exaggerated and unsubstantiated security concerns and mutual suspicions between them.”

This final debate regarding the destruction of the remaining samples of smallpox took place on the last day of the meeting, and the United States and Russia held to their positions not to agree to a time for destruction. However, Iran in an unusual move, asked for a vote, but the proposal was rejected by the Assembly, not surprising, since the WHA typically makes decisions by consensus agreements. However, the resulting agreement could be considered a win by all parties. While there was no agreement to a final destruction date, there was an agreement to meet again to discuss it in three years, at the 67th WHA, rather than five years, is a deviation from the historic five-year period, between discussions toward setting a date for the final destruction of the remaining smallpox.

Note: The last naturally occurring case was in Somalia in 1977, and WHO officially declared smallpox eradicated from the world in 1979 – the first global disease ever to be eradicated by humans. This past week held a couple of references to our historical interactions with smallpox. The exhibit of a letter containing scabs for smallpox vaccination dated 1876, on display at the Virginia Historical Society museum, attracted the attention of the CDC, which arranged immediately to remove and test it. 215 years ago, in May 1796, Edward Jenner administered the first smallpox inoculation in England.

For a more detailed summary of the legal and diplomatic aspects of the smallpox debate this week, please go to www.ttu.edu/biodefense, the Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy.