Monday, September 21, 2009

Review-- Assessment of Future Scientific Needs for Live Variola Virus

In 1999, the government (specifically the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) requested that the Institute of Medicine convene an independent scientific panel to investigate future scientific needs for live variola virus. That committee, the “Committee on the Assessment of Future Needs for Variola (Smallpox) Virus,” produced a report “The Assessment of Future Scientific Needs for Live Variola Virus” chronicling their conclusions. The report outlines six major scientific needs for the smallpox virus, the first and most convincing being the need for further research into the creation of novel vaccines fit for immunocompromised populations.

The assessment is particularly interesting in light of the World Health Organization’s upcoming debate as to whether or not to retain the world’s existing stocks of live variola virus. Dr. Ann Arvin (Stanford University School of Medicine), who served on the committee both in 1999 and on a recent committee to revisit the issue, commented on the differences between the two assessments, claiming that the 2009 study was far less political than charged debates of 1999. I found this to be interesting, as both reports were intended to be (and appear to be) completely independent—obviously being unbiased is tough, even in science.

The 1999 assessment is well written, providing a clear outline of the major scientific motives for the retention of variola stocks, and well as a broad overview of smallpox epidemiology, eradication, and bioterrorism threat. It is informative and accessible to the general public, and although it is very technical, I did enjoy reading it.

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