GENEVA (Reuters) - A decision on when to destroy the last known stocks of live smallpox was put off for a further three years at the World Health Organization's annual meeting on Tuesday in the latest stage in a debate that has lasted decades.
The issue had deeply divided the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva, with Iran spearheading opposition to a U.S. and Russian-backed plan to postpone setting a date for destruction for five years.
Iran was at the forefront of countries arguing for the stocks held in Russia and the United States to be destroyed now.
Its arguments included the risk of stockpiles falling into the wrong hands and that technology existed to create vaccines and anti-viral drugs without access to the live variola virus.
The United States said further research was needed into vaccines against the disease eradicated more than 30 years ago.
Twenty-seven countries backed its position, compared with only seven behind Iran, it said.
"We're very satisfied. There had been talk there would be a call for immediate destruction. That most decidedly did not happen," said Nils Daulaire, director at the office of global health affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"We have made substantial progress over the last decade," he told Reuters. "Three years is a reasonable time period in terms of the next review."
In February, Siga Technologies Inc was awarded a U.S. government contract for a smallpox anti-viral.
Daulaire said he could not comment on Iran's motives, but that a clause seeking the destruction of any virus held outside the two official stores was central to its quarrel with the U.S.-backed plea for time to allow for scientific research.
"The real concern that Iran had with the resolution was we had called for all countries to confirm they held no smallpox stocks and that any stocks they had ever held had been destroyed," he said. "That was unacceptable to them."
No one could be contacted from the Iranian delegation.
Already the debate over when to destroy the stocks, seen as the last stage in ridding the planet of the smallpox disease, has rumbled on for 25 years.
Stocks were held in Russia and the United States as a legacy of Cold War cooperation when the two powers worked together to eliminate the disease.
Debate on getting rid of those stockpiles resurfaced last week. Talks to find a compromise dragged on late into the evening Monday.
As the final day of the annual meeting of health ministers and officials from the 192 WHO members, Tuesday was the last chance to hammer out a compromise.
Smallpox proved to be the thorniest issue on the agenda at the annual decision-making assembly, which began last week.
In all 28 resolutions and three decisions on guiding future work were passed. They included efforts to prevent non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and a deal on better preparedness for a flu pandemic by allowing virus samples to be shared globally in exchange for vaccines.
WHO Director General Margaret Chan hailed the framework agreement as "a triumph for health diplomacy."
"This was the culmination of four years of very hard work, which at times faced issues that appeared hopelessly deadlocked," she said a speech concluding the assembly.
"It vastly improves the world's capacity to prepare for the next influenza pandemic."