Health ministers from around the world agreed today to put off setting a deadline to destroy the last known stockpiles of the smallpox virus for three more years, rejecting a US plan that had called for a five-year delay. After two days of heated debate, the 193-nation World Health Assembly agreed to a compromise that calls for another review in 2014. The US had proposed a five-year extension to destroying US and Russian stockpiles, arguing that more research is needed and that the stockpiles could help prevent one of the world's deadliest diseases from being used as a biological weapon.
"Three years is a reasonable time period in terms of the next review," said the chief American delegate to the assembly. "Obviously during that time period, we expect there will be meaningful progress in the research on anti-virals and vaccines and diagnostics." The assembly declared smallpox officially eradicated in 1980, and the UN health agency has been discussing whether to destroy the virus since 1986. (Read more smallpox stories.)