PITTSBURGH, May 17 (UPI) -- A U.S. researcher who led the worldwide effort to eradicate smallpox says the final stockpiled strains of the virus should be destroyed.
The United States and Russia keep strains of the deadly disease for research, while members of the World Health Organization, meeting in Geneva this week, may vote on whether the remaining stocks of live strains should be eliminated.
"The very real reason for wanting to eradicate the virus itself is that it sends a signal to people around the world, to countries around the world, that it is regarded as an extremely dangerous virus, and no one should be working with it," Dr. D.A. Henderson at the University of Pittsburgh told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Monday.
"If they did, it would be regarded as a crime against humanity," he said.
In 1966, Henderson headed an effort by the World Health Organization to rid the world of smallpox, and by May 8, 1980, WHO declared smallpox eradicated, the first and only time an infectious disease has been vanquished.
The only two known stockpiles of the virus are held by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a Russian research center in Siberia.
Both centers say they want to keep the strains to develop better and safer vaccines.
U.S. officials fear smallpox viruses might exist outside the official repositories and could be released unintentionally or used as a bio-weapon, Bill Hall, spokesman for the Health and Human Services' Office of Global Health Affairs, said.
"The U.S. is committed to the eventual destruction of the smallpox virus stocks," Hall said, "but we believe that this week's World Health Assembly should authorize continued research with the virus samples to develop the countermeasures needed to respond to a potential smallpox outbreak."