By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Health ministers are deeply divided over setting a date to destroy the world's remaining known stocks of live smallpox virus, stored in Russia and the United States, diplomatic sources said Friday.
The two powers say that more research is needed into safer vaccines against the deadly disease eradicated more than 30 years ago. They also seek guarantees that all stocks have been destroyed or transferred to their two official repositories due to fears that the virus could be used as a biological weapon.
But their joint proposal to put off for 5 years any decision on the timing of destruction has run into opposition at the annual meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) -- where the issue has already been on the agenda for the last 25 years.
"A lot of developing countries would like to see the virus destroyed, first and foremost among them Iran," a diplomatic source told Reuters.
Iran is already at odds with the U.S. and other powers over its nuclear program. Tehran denies Western accusations that it is seeking a nuclear weapons capability, saying its atomic activities are aimed at generating electricity only.
Many countries say the world's remaining smallpox virus stocks should be eradicated as the disease no longer exists and the virus is lethal. They also say technology exists to develop new vaccines and antivirals without needing to use live virus.
The U.S.-Russian smallpox resolution is formally backed by 19 other countries, including U.S. allies Britain, Canada and Japan as well as several former republics of the Soviet Union.
The 193-member WHO, a United Nations agency, takes most decisions by consensus, but rules allow for a vote. Debate has been postponed to Monday, a day before the annual assembly ends.
"We expect the resolution to be adopted," a spokesman at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva told Reuters late Friday.
The WHO certified that smallpox, an acutely contagious disease, was eradicated worldwide in 1979, two years after the last case was detected in Somalia. The disease no longer occurs naturally although a woman died in Britain in 1978 after being accidentally exposed in a laboratory.
But fears have mounted that rogue states or militants could get their hands on stocks and deliberately release the pathogen.
Dr. Nils Daulaire, Director of the U.S. Office of Global Health Affairs, told reporters in Geneva this week: "Vials of smallpox have been discovered deep in freezers. This has been announced. I don't know how many more of these there might be."
In February, Siga Technologies Inc was awarded a U.S. government contract for a smallpox antiviral
"Until smallpox really leaves, the world would be pretty vulnerable since most of the world population has no immunity to smallpox," said Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health.
WHO bio-safety inspectors last visited the two smallpox repositories at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and the State Research Center for Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Russia, in 2009. They found both sites to be safe and secure for work with live virus.
WHO also maintains a vaccine emergency stockpile of 32.6 million doses which it says is stored securely in Switzerland.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich)