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9-Misc: International campaign to stop smallpox genetic engineering announced



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TITLE:  International Campaign to Stop Smallpox Genetic Engineering
        Announced
SOURCE: Third World Network & The Sunshine Project
DATE:   4 Apr 2005

------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------


International Campaign to Stop Smallpox Genetic Engineering Announced
Non-Governmental Organizations Urge the World Health Organization to Put
Smallpox in the History Books Instead of the Genetic Engineering Lab

(4 April 2005) - An international alliance of non-governmental
organizations has launched a campaign to urge the World Health
Organization to reject a proposal that would permit the genetic
engineering of smallpox and to instead ensure that all remaining stocks
of the virus are destroyed within two years. Debate on the proposal will
take place at the World Health Assembly (WHA), which meets in Geneva,
Switzerland beginning on May 16th.

The NGOs, led by Third World Network and The Sunshine Project, have
opened a website, http://www.smallpoxbiosafety.org, where organizations
and individuals can send letters to the WHO Director General. The website
provides links to health ministries, so that people can also contact
their government's representatives to the WHA. The website is available
in Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

The proposal to genetically engineer smallpox, which would also permit
smallpox genes to be inserted into related poxviruses and the unlimited
distribution of small segments of smallpox DNA, poses a large number of
public health, biosafety, and biological weapons risks. It was prompted
by the United States, and has been recommended to the WHA through an
imbalanced advisory committee. A Briefing Paper (http://
www.smallpoxbiosafety.org/../poxpaper.pdf The Genetic Engineering of
Smallpox: WHO's Retreat from the Eradication of Smallpox Virus and Why it
Should be Stopped) at the website explains the political process that led
to the proposal, the risks, and why it should be rejected. An edited
excerpt from the paper that provides more background is appended to this
news release.

Between now and the May opening of the WHA, the NGOs will be seeking to
mobilize a wide variety of non-governmental organization and citizens.
They will contact all member governments of WHO and urge them to reject
the committee's recommendations and to instead:
-  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.

Interested organizations and people are urged to visit http://
www.smallpoxbiosafety.org/ to learn more about this issue and to send a
letter to the WHO Director General.


Contacts:
The Sunshine Project
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Austin, Texas, US
Tel: +1 512 494 0545
E-mail: tsp@sunshine-project.org

Third World Network
Tel: + 603-2300 2585
E-mail: twnkl@po.jaring.my


Background

The World Health Organization (WHO) is justly proud of the global effort
that brought about the eradication of smallpox in 1977; but the truth of
the matter is that the job was never finished. The United States and
Russia still retain stocks of the smallpox virus (Variola major), an
easily transmitted disease and ancient scourge of humanity that is a
potent biological weapons agent. Smallpox kills one quarter or more of
the people it infects and leaves many that do not die disfigured and blind.

In 1999, the remaining stocks of smallpox virus were slated for imminent
destruction. But Russia and the US balked at the World Health Assembly
(WHA) resolution calling upon them to destroy the virus. Instead, the US
has accelerated smallpox research. Now, it wants to open the Pandora's
Box of genetically-engineered smallpox. A plan to genetically engineer
the virus could be approved by the World Health Assembly in May 2005. The
plan also includes the expression of smallpox genes in related
poxviruses, and unlimited distribution of segments of smallpox DNA. If
implemented, this plan would pose serious biosafety risks and open the
road to an artificial reconstruction of the virus for biowarfare purposes.

Fewer and fewer people, and their leaders, have personal memories of the
horror of smallpox, or even the scars left by vaccination, which had
ended in most countries by the late 1970s. As if the world is condemned
to repeat history through forgetfulness, WHO has now lost the political
will that it once had to finish the job of smallpox eradication. Much of
the blame can be laid at the feet of WHO's decision to leave oversight of
smallpox research in the hands of an unbalanced and highly politicized
"technical" advisory committee that is dominated by a small number of
countries and scientists with a personal interest in pursuing smallpox
research. It was US pressure that rammed the proposal for genetically-
engineered smallpox through that committee, and now the World Health
Assembly is in an inglorious position of being on the verge of endorsing
what may prove to be the undoing of one its own greatest achievements.

Civil society and like-minded governments must urgently come together to
turn the tide. The creation of genetically-engineered smallpox and
hybrids of smallpox and other viruses (called chimera) pose serious
public health, biosafety, and biological weapons dangers to the entire
world. With increased smallpox experimentation, the world stands closer
to the accident or deliberate act that would cause a release of the virus.

Because many poxviruses are closely-related to each other and, in their
natural state frequently not entirely species-specific, the insertion of
smallpox genes in related viruses has the potential to create dangerous
new human (and animal) pathogens. Through genetic engineering or targeted
mutations, labs that receive pieces of the smallpox genome may develop
the ability to create smallpox or a novel virus with its characteristics
without ever receiving an actual sample of Variola major. Moreover,
laboratory safety practices and technology cannot erase human error and
equipment failures that lead to accidents, as evidenced by a recent
string of lab-acquired infections and environmental releases of SARS,
Ebola, tularemia, and other dangerous diseases. In fact, the last
reported human cases of smallpox were laboratory-acquired (see page 3 of
the Briefing Paper - http://www.smallpoxbiosafety.org/../poxpaper.pdf The
Genetic Engineering of Smallpox: WHO's Retreat from the Eradication of
Smallpox Virus and Why it Should be Stopped).

Contained to only two labs in Russia and the US, smallpox has a unique
multilateral research oversight structure that has no parallel with any
other disease. Because of the unique situation of smallpox research, if
WHO approves these experiments it will not only increase the threat posed
by smallpox itself. WHO will also broadcast the signal that it is
internationally acceptable to have genetic engineering of other germs,
including experiments in which new and more dangerous forms may result -
or even be intended.

If endorsed by the WHA, the intergovernmental encouragement of the
creation of designer disease will come at a particularly dangerous time.
Globally, the number of high containment facilities handling dangerous
disease agents is expanding and the hazardous applications of
biotechnology increasing. This is reflected in a growing number of lab
accidents in a variety of countries in recent years involving highly
pathogenic agents in high containment facilities. Particularly in the US,
the scope and quantity of research on biological weapons agents is
growing, and now exceeds the cost of the effort that created the atomic
bomb (the Manhattan Project), adjusted for inflation.

Individuals and civil society organizations should take action and voice
their opposition to WHO and their national public health authorities,
urging them to reject the recommendations of the committee and to instead
ensure prompt destruction of all remaining virus stocks. This briefing
provides a political overview of smallpox eradication, the WHO processes
that led to the present state of affairs, and related issues of biosafety
and prohibitions on biological weapons.




--


GENET
European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
In den Steinäckern 13
D - 38116 Braunschweig
Germany

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