- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

GENEVA (AP) - The last known stockpiles of the smallpox virus won’t be destroyed anytime soon, the U.S. health secretary said Tuesday, in part out of fear that one of the world’s deadliest diseases could be used as a bioweapon.

U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sibelius told reporters that the stockpiles held in secure U.S. and Russian labs would remain in place for at least another five years when the World Health Organization could review the situation.

At a news conference at the U.N.’s European headquarters where the World Health Assembly also was debating the matter, Sibelius said the U.S. is “committed to the eventual destruction” of the stockpiles but fears that smallpox could still re-emerge and be released unintentionally or deliberately used as a bioweapon. Scientists would need the virus to create a vaccine.

For centuries smallpox killed about one-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 were now destroyed. At the meeting this week some of WHO’s member countries have again been pushing to set a date for the virus’ destruction, the fifth year they have made such an attempt.

The U.N. health agency first agreed in 1996 that smallpox should be destroyed _ though it lacks the power to enforce the decision. But that has been repeatedly delayed to give scientists time to develop safer smallpox vaccines and drugs. There are now two such vaccines and a third coming along, plus experimental drugs in the works to treat but not cure the disease.

A report commissioned by WHO last year said there’s no compelling scientific reason to hang onto the viruses and the stockpiles would only help advance drug treatment and satisfy regulatory requirements. But other scientists contend the stockpiles could still provide valuable information in the future.

Sibelius said the possibility of a future biological threat demands more tests with the virus. She says no one has ever verified whether all all nations complied with WHO’s efforts to transfer all the collections of smallpox virus to the U.S. and Russian labs.

“The world has no immunity to smallpox whatsoever,” she said. “It could be released unintentionally or released as a bioweapon.”

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates did not directly address the smallpox issue, but told the world’s health ministers Tuesday that every nation can increase their vaccination rates to as much as 90 percent coverage against meningitis, polio and other diseases over the next decade, as a low-cost way to protect their populations.