Letter to Director General of the World Health Organisation

(Monday, 4th April, 2005)

Dr. Lee Jong-wook, Director General
The World Health Organization
Avenue Appia 20
1211 Geneva 27

Dr. Sue Mayer
GeneWatch UK
The Mill House
Manchester Road
Tideswell, Buxton
SK17 8LN

Dear Dr. Lee:

The World Health Organization (WHO) is justly recognized across the globe for the eradication of smallpox. For more than 25 years, no human being has been killed or disfigured by that scourge. Even so, declarations of victory over smallpox are premature so long as more than 550 samples of the virus remain at laboratories in the United States and Russia. In 2005, it is past time for WHO to muster the political will to finish the job of smallpox eradication by ensuring that all remaining stocks of the virus are promptly destroyed.

Sadly, in recent years WHO has moved in the opposite direction. In 2002, it stepped back from setting a firm date for destruction of remaining virus stocks and allowed the US and Russia to begin a research program that will effectively permit them to retain samples indefinitely. Further, WHO's governing body, the World Health Assembly (WHA), is on the verge of another enormous step backwards that will set a dangerous precedent and further increase the threat to humanity posed by this supposedly eradicated disease.

At its upcoming meeting in May, the WHA will consider recommendations made by a WHO Advisory Committee that is dominated by a very small number of countries. These recommendations, if adopted, would permit the creation of genetically-engineered smallpox, the insertion of smallpox genes into other poxviruses, and the unlimited distribution of segments of smallpox DNA.

If adopted, these recommendations would pose a serious threat to international public health by increasing the chances of an accidental or deliberate release of this devastating virus. In addition, the experiments that would be permitted would open the way to even more dangerous manipulations of the smallpox virus. In effect, the recommendations threaten to undermine public health, biosafety, and biological weapons nonproliferation.

I strongly urge the World Health Assembly to reject the Advisory Committee's recommendations and instead to:

  • 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 poxviruses);
  • 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.

As the Director General of WHO, you can influence the course of these critical decisions by ensuring that the WHA has an open and detailed discussion of the recommendations, including a thorough review of the full set of implications that they entail. I also request that you make my comments, and those of other citizens and non-governmental organizations, available to all delegates attending the World Health Assembly.

If the World Health Assembly fails to reverse course and take the above-described steps, it may undo one of the greatest achievements of multilateral cooperation in the field of health and thereby undermine its own credibility with people throughout the world.


Sue Mayer

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