Friday, November 12, 2004

Media Contact:
Dr. Sujatha Byravan
(617) 868-0870

Cambridge, MA---The Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) learned yesterday from sources at National Public Radio of a decision by the World Health Organization (WHO) “to allow for the first time the genetic modification of the deadly smallpox virus.” The CRG wishes to express its strong opposition to this decision, and calls on all citizens and civil society groups to join the organization in fighting efforts that could create an even more dangerous version of the virus currently in United States and Russian laboratories. 

Genetic engineering of potential bioterrorism agents, whether conducted under a defensive or military rationale, sets an ominous precedent that encourages similar projects around the world, creating the prospect of a biological arms race. Until now, the WHO has strictly banned such research on smallpox, and few if any known experiments involving the genetic modification of lethal pathogens are currently conducted in the United States.

Smallpox (variola virus) was successfully eradicated in 1977 after an unprecedented ten-year, $300 million global campaign coordinated by the WHO in over 30 countries. Today, the last known strains of smallpox virus reside in two high-security laboratories: the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and the Russian State Center for Research on Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk, Russia.

“We have seen no evidence of a threat that would justify this research,” says Sujatha Byravan, Executive Director of the CRG. “A decade ago, the WHO was planning to destroy the world’s last remaining samples. Today, it is proposing to tinker with the virus in ways that could produce an even more lethal smallpox strain. This is a devastating step backwards.”

Today’s decision will permit two different types of genetic modification of smallpox that have been hotly contested within the WHO for several years. The first involves the “generation of recombinant variola viruses expressing reporter genes, such as the gene encoding the green fluorescent protein.” These genes allow scientists to more effectively trace cell processes and the spread of viruses. The second, more controversial recommendation would involve “the expression of variola virus genes in other orthopoxviruses” through single gene transfer. The Department of Homeland Security claims that these procedures will speed the development of drugs and vaccines to combat the use of smallpox in a bioterrorist attack.

“Such claims are illusory,” says Susan Wright, a research scientist and biological weapons expert at the University of Michigan. “Genetic engineering could generate thousands of variations of natural pathogens. Designing drugs and vaccines against specific variations cannot strengthen defenses. On the contrary, such research serves only to increase the risk that novel pathogens will be released, either by accident or intention." Victor Sidel, a past president of the American Public Health Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility, concurred. “Instead of contributing to the biological arms race under the guise of producing defenses,” he noted, “the WHO should seek to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention by adding new provisions for inspection and verification.” Wright and Sidel are members of the CRG Working Group on Biological Weapons.

As recently as November 2003, the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research issued “significant reservations” about proposals to create recombinant variola viruses and insert variola virus genes into other, less dangerous viruses. The plan has drawn open opposition from prominent scientists including DA Henderson, the former bioterrorism czar to President George W. Bush, who led the worldwide campaign to eradicate smallpox.
If you wish to send a letter encouraging the CDC to abstain from genetically engineering the smallpox virus, it can be sent by email to or by mail to Public Comment c/o BPRP, Bioterrorism Preparedness & Response Planning, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mailstop C-18, 1600 Clifton Road, Atlanta, GA 30333.

The CRG has circulated a statement, signed by biologists and research scientists, calling for a “prohibition against the development of novel biological and toxic agents, or the modification of biological agents, to enhance virulence, pathogenicity, or transmission characteristics, for any purposes, including biological defense.” To sign the statement, visit CRG's Campaign for the Peaceful Development of the Biological Sciences.

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