- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

An influential World Health Organization committee is sending shock waves through the scientific community with its recommendation that researchers be permitted to conduct genetic-engineering experiments with the smallpox virus.

The idea is to better combat a disease that is considered a leading bioterror threat, even though it was publicly eradicated 25 years ago.

The WHO previously had opposed such work amid fears that a “superbug” might emerge. Because the disease is so deadly, the WHO, at times, has recommended destroying the world’s two known smallpox stockpiles, located in secure labs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and in the former Soviet Union.

The recommended policy shift has reignited a debate over whether such research will help or hinder bioterrorism defenses.

The World Health Assembly — the ruling body of the 192-nation WHO — would make a final decision on whether to approve the experiments, which would include splicing a “marker” gene into the smallpox virus so its spread can be better tracked in the laboratory.

The WHO committee said allowing the genetic-engineering experiments would speed depletion of the remaining smallpox virus stocks.

It has been U.S. policy to refrain from genetically engineering smallpox, but that undoubtedly would change if the WHO endorses such research.

“It’s absolutely the right decision,” said Ken Alibek, a former top scientist in the Soviet biological-weapons program who said the Soviets covertly developed smallpox as a weapon in the 1980s.

Mr. Alibek, who defected to the United States in 1992 and now teaches at George Mason University, said scientists now are capable of genetically engineering smallpox to render current vaccines useless.

“The bad guys already know how to do it,” Mr. Alibek said. “So why prohibit legitimate researchers to do research for protection?”

Other scientists argue that such research has little value and is too risky.

“We have seen no evidence of a threat that would justify this research,” said Sujatha Byravan, executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics, a Boston nonprofit.

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