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Decades after eradicating smallpox, countries mull whether to destroy last remaining viruses

Smallpox, one of the world’s deadliest diseases, eradicated three decades ago, is kept alive under tight security today in just two places — the United States and Russia.

Many other countries say the world would be safer if those stockpiles of the virus were destroyed.

Now for the fifth time, at a World Health Organization meeting next week, they will push again for the virus’ destruction. And again it seems likely their efforts will be futile.

U.S. and Russian government officials say it is essential they keep some smallpox alive in case a future biological threat demands more tests with the virus. They also say the virus samples are still needed to develop experimental vaccines and drugs.

It was in 1996 that WHO’s member countries first agreed smallpox should be destroyed. But they have repeatedly delayed a demand for destruction so that scientists could develop safer smallpox vaccines and drugs. That’s now largely been done: There are two vaccines, a third in the works, and there are experimental drugs being developed for treating it, but not curing it.

Yet even if most of WHO’s member countries vote to set a new date for destruction, the agency doesn’t have the power to enforce the decision.

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