By Katie Leslie, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Smallpox may be a distant memory, but the virus that causes the debilitating disease, which killed upwards of 300 million people in the last century alone, is alive and well in Atlanta — at least for now.
Today, the two known stocks of the variola virus, held at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at a laboratory in Russia, are the focus of an intense international debate, with dozens of nations lobbying for their destruction.
Based on discussions in Geneva this week, the World Health Organization’s executive board could submit a recommendation that the World Health Assembly take up the issue in May. Should the WHA vote to have the virus destroyed, the U.S. and Russia — which are trying to develop better vaccines and a way to treat the disease in case of an outbreak or bioterror attack — could find themselves in an awkward spot.
“If the U.S. maintains its current position on indefinite retention of the live virus, I can foresee a diplomatic train wreck at the World Health Assembly in May,” said Jonathan B. Tucker, author of “Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox.”
Dr. Inger Damon, chief of the Poxvirus and Rabies branch with the CDC, says the debate entails more than just science: “I think there is probably quite a bit of geopolitical posturing on this,” she said.
In addition to a high fever, smallpox causes the sufferer’s body to slowly erupt with painful blisters that some describe as feeling like BB pellets under the skin. About a third of people with smallpox die. Survivors are often left disfigured and blind.