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The state of Australia: cultural economy

The state of culture in Australia? Basically, it’s in rude health. Ars Electronica

In the lead-up to the budget, the story of crisis has been hammered home, but there’s more to a country than its structural deficit. So how is Australia doing overall? In this special series, ten writers to take a broader look at the State of Australia; our health, wealth, education, culture, environment, well-being and international standing.

Naturally, federal budgets are fretful times for economic sectors underwritten by discretionary public expenditure. The arts and cultural sector is composed of parts that rely heavily on public funding (such as heritage, museums), parts that are a mixture of public and private (such as film, television, radio), and parts that are largely private (fashion, design, video games). Obviously, some parts of this sector therefore have more reason for trepidation than others.

The recent report from the Commission of Audit makes clear that there is indeed a budget crisis – although not everyone would see things that clearly.

Neal Sanche

But it we can accept for a moment there is such a crisis, political reality indicates it will need to be met with expenditure cuts as well as tax increases (although the Abbott government did make an election promise not to do this). As I previously noted on The Conversation, those spending cuts – come May 13 – will probably not have much impact on arts and culture in this budget cycle (although the Commission did recommend that Screen Australia face funding cuts).

So what then is the state of culture in Australia? Basically, it’s in rude health. We know this from government data itself. The Australian Bureau of Statistics collects a variety of statistics, although as with most aggregate economic data, there are several years of lag between gathering and reporting.

In February of this year the ABS released an experimental set of cultural and creative activity satellite accounts. These are for 2008-9.

How we’re doing now

The ABS Satellite account for 2008-9 shows the contribution of the cultural and creative economy to Australian GDP was A$86 billion, which is almost 7%. Cultural activity makes up A$50b of that, and creative activity is larger, at A$80b (a A$42b overlap of cultural and creative explains how these numbers add up to A$86b).

Public cultural spending was A$7.6b. Some A$2.3b of this was from federal spending, about half of which was for public broadcasting.

A 2010 survey carried out by the ABS indicates that Australians get a regular fix of culture, with about 85% reporting attending a cultural event, the most popular being cinema, but with music festivals, parks, and museums and galleries not too far behind.

Private cultural spending in 2010 was just under A$20b, with television, books and film capturing the bulk of that spending. According to the Australian Tax Office, just A$28 million was donated to cultural organisations from tax-deductible private ancillary funds.

By industrial sector, gross value added (GVA) estimates run to A$65b, the majority of which was broken down as:

  • design (A$26b)
  • literature and print media ($13bn)
  • fashion ($12bn)
  • broadcasting, digital media and film ($8bn).

The cultural and creative sector produces more GVA than health care, but less than construction.

There were about 1 million employees in this sector, with a quarter of those working in cultural and creative occupations outside the cultural and creative industries. There are more than 160,000 business or non-profit organisations in the cultural and creative industries sector.

International comparisons are plagued by definitional consistencies, but the ABS reports that Australia’s cultural and creative sector is very similar to that of Canada, Finland, Spain and the UK by most measures. (The largest, on a per-capita measure, is the US.)

Yu Shibao

How we got here

There is much more detail that we could report from the above statistics. Yet we don’t need to worry too much about the lags in the data or the crude aggregations because a few overarching findings and long-run trends stand out.

The first is that the cultural and creative industries are large, vibrant and growing, and it is the creative, market-facing parts that are doing most of the heavy lifting.

That is entirely unsurprising, and nor – I will stress to add – is it an ideological point. These sectors can grow because they face not just millions of Australians but billions of global consumers.

The single most important factor driving and shaping the Australian cultural and creative economy is the global marketplace. And within that, Australia’s single greatest advantage is that we are a multi-cultural English-speaking nation, meaning that we have a comparative advantage in cultural content production for a global market.

The factor most accelerating this is the rise and spread of digital and computational technologies into all corners of cultural and creative production. This lowers the cost of production and distribution, increases access and variety, creates new platforms, and makes possible new business models.

A further significant trend is the long-run growth in household wealth globally, not just in Australia. This increases the quantity of household spending and, consequentially, demand for cultural and creative content. Furthermore, as demonstrated recently in the UK, a strong case can be made connecting the growth of the arts and cultural sector with GDP growth.

These three factors – globalisation, technology and wealth – are not the only things that matter, but to a first order of approximation they are most of the story of how we got here.

National Museum of Australia. Sam Ilić

The next ten years

The most important policy forces affecting the cultural and creative economy in Australia are not those from within Australian cultural and creative industry policy. They are the factors affecting Australia’s position vis-à-vis the global economy, digital technology development and adoption, as well as the factors affecting household wealth.

These are factors relating to bilateral trade agreements (and the intellectual property provisions written into these), the state of the National Broadband Network, Australian tax policy, the vibrancy of the mining sector, and so on, will likely continue to have a far greater impact on the state of Australia’s cultural economy than, say, specific details pertaining to the funding of the National Gallery.

What is likely to change? We might usefully distinguish among the cultural economy between those parts that are more in the manner of public goods (such as national galleries, museums, and so on) from those that are subsidised industries (such as public support to the film industry).

Public goods suffer free-rider problems, and are best supplied through public funding. We can expect that Australian cultural public goods will continue to be funded, and maybe even receive greater funding as Australian wealth grows.

But the subsidised industries part of the cultural sector will face a tougher time. These can survive through lobbying and scare campaigns. But they also tend to be eventually defeated by innovative competition and new technologies.

It’s unclear where, for example, Australia’s public broadcasters fall on this spectrum. In the early years they very clearly were a public good. They still are in the case of some remote and regional broadcasting. But they are a purely subsidised industry in most urban markets and many media segments.

This article was republished with permission from The Conversation

Reducing discrimination and financial burdens for people with cancer

People with cancer are concerned about losing their jobs if they take ‘too much’ leave for treatment. Lisa F. Young

May 8, 2014. Some Australians with cancer face discrimination when attempting to access financial services, are treated unfairly by their employers, and face significant financial burden when travelling for treatment.

Laws and policy are not often considered a part of the cancer experience, but they have a significant impact on outcomes for cancer patients, their families and health professionals, according to a report by the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer Cancer Council Victoria.

In the first stage of our project Making the law work better for people affected by cancer, we asked people affected by cancer to share their experiences accessing financial support when travelling for medical treatment, financial services, such as life and travel insurance and whether they had faced discrimination at work.

We consulted with a variety of professional, and community stakeholders through workshops, round tables and an online survey of more than 550 members of the Breast Cancer Network Australia’s Review and Survey Group.

With around 125,000 Australians diagnosed with cancer each year, it’s important we get these laws and policies right.

Financial burden

Many patients and carers talked about the financial burden of cancer and, particularly, the costs of transport and accommodation for treatment.

This burden is greatest for those living in rural and remote areas who will almost always need to travel for some components of their care. As geographical isolation increases, cancer care is less accessible.

These costs can affect the decisions people make about treatment and recovery; those worried about the financial burden of treatment may be less inclined to choose a particular care pathway. Significant travel and accommodation costs make people more likely to defer treatment or seek alternative treatment options.

Disturbingly, the further from a metropolitan centre a cancer patient lives, the more likely they are to die within five years of diagnosis.

Subsidies fall far short of the true cost of transport and accommodation. Martin Kalfatovic, CC BY-NC-SA

The patients and carers we spoke to welcomed the support available through government patient travel assistance schemes, but most considered it too modest to cover the true costs.

Victorian cancer patients, for example, are eligible for government support of $35+GST per night for accommodation; subsidies in other states and territories range from $30 per night in South Australia, to $60 per night in Queensland.

In 2007, Cancer Action Victoria estimated the average cost of a hotel room for a night to be around $90, leaving a gap of between $30 and $60.

A rural cancer patient, who had to travel four hours to Melbourne for regular treatment, said while she received some reimbursement from the Victorian government, the cost of the trips was “outweighing the benefit”:

I’m at a point where costs will stop me from continuing to see my oncologist at regular intervals.

Concerns about work

Discrimination against employees on the basis of having or having had cancer is prohibited by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, with some exceptions relating to a person’s ability to perform the inherent requirements of the job and where reasonable adjustments to accommodate the effects of a person’s cancer would cause unjustifiable hardship to an employer. Carers of people affected by cancer are also protected under the legislation.

Many respondents to our online consultation reported their employers had been supportive when they went back to work, while others reported concerns, including how their employer or colleagues would respond to their taking leave; the risk of missing out on career opportunities; and losing their job altogether.

Some people reported being treated differently or avoided at work, and commented that employer and colleague sympathy could decrease very quickly when treatment was lengthy and required extended periods of leave.

People with a history of cancer were worried they could miss out on promotions due to employers having a lingering “what if?” in their minds about the likelihood of future absences.

It’s against the law to discriminate against workers on the basis of their cancer. Christian Delbert/Shutterstock

People on casual or fixed-term contracts had particular concerns about losing their jobs – or not being rehired – if they took “too much” leave for treatment.

Carers of people affected by cancer also shared concerns about losing opportunities or their jobs if they took extended leave to care for a loved one with cancer. One online survey respondent said:

I think this comes down to people not having a complete awareness of the long-term effects of cancer post-treatment, meaning that people who have not previously been exposed to what cancer entails may have preconceived notions of how survivors are affected post-treatment.

Rather than calling for new legislative protections, most people recommended that employers, people affected by cancer and their colleagues receive more education on:

  • the effects of a cancer diagnosis and treatment
  • the experience of living with cancer
  • the legal frameworks
  • rights and responsibilities that apply when an employee or potential employee is affected by cancer
  • practical solutions to common problems.

Insurance discrimination

Stakeholders were also concerned about their ability to obtain certain types of insurance. Despite discrimination laws designed to protect people with cancer or a history of cancer, some reported being unfairly denied travel or life insurance.

While insurers can take a cancer diagnosis or history of cancer into account when offering a policy of insurance, a decision to charge a higher premium or deny cover must be supported by statistical or actuarial evidence.

In a 2003 case of a woman with advanced breast cancer who disclosed her condition to a travel insurance company, the Federal Court held that a blanket denial of coverage was unreasonable. The woman was no more likely than a person without breast cancer to make a claim on her policy in relation to, for example, lost luggage; but the insurance company treated her application in a formulaic way, without directly considering her particular circumstances.

Despite anecdotal reports of insurers refusing cover for cancer patients, very few cases have been referred to human rights commissions. Respondents to our survey suggested that for people affected by cancer, complaining or taking action against insurance companies would be too great a burden.

Some people were worried about the implications of having genetic testing for hereditary cancers. While some wanted to undergo testing to be able to look after their health, they feared the results might prevent them or their families getting insurance.

If the genetic testing shows I have an increased risk of cancer then this may influence decisions insurers may make about my children. I worry about the flow on effect. (Online survey respondent)

Insurers are allowed to take genetic test results into account when assessing a person’s risk profile, just as they would any other health information. But, like any other relevant health factor, a decision to offer or decline cover must be supported by evidence.

Insurers are allowed to take results of genetic tests into account, within reason. Nikita G. Sidorov/Shutterstock

In a case study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, Louise Keogh and Margaret Otlowski describe the experience of an Australian man who was refused insurance on three separate occasions on the basis of genetic information he disclosed. This was despite having provided information to the insurers to show that, with regular health checks he was at no greater risk of developing cancer than the general population.

The man, who complained to the Australian Human Rights Commission, was eventually offered full cover by an insurer. But the authors highlight the case as an example of the “high level of initiative and proactivity required for a consumer to achieve a fair result”.

Towards a fairer system

The next stage of our project is to inform people with cancer and their families about the law and their legal rights and responsibilities, as well as supporting improvements to existing laws.

One of the recommended reforms is to increase Victorian transport and accommodation subsidies. We will also undertake education sessions and raise awareness about transport and accommodation support services, workplace rights and insurance discrimination protections.

The law is not always visible to those affected by cancer, but it affects their experiences in a number of ways. We need to develop an approach to cancer support that includes a better understanding of how laws and policies can protect and support the thousands of people who have to deal with a cancer diagnosis and improve them where they don’t serve us well.

Where to go for help?

For help with cancer-related financial or legal problems in the meantime, call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20 for information and support.

To make a free and confidential discrimination complaint, contact the Australian Human Rights Commissionon 1300 656 419, or your state or territory equal opportunity or anti-discrimination board or commission.

For employment problems in particular, call the Fair Work Ombudsman on 13 13 94.

This article was co-authored by Sondra Davoren, Senior Legal Policy Advisor and Deborah Lawson, Legal Policy Advisor at Cancer Council Victoria

This article was republished with permission from The Conversation

Should drought support measures survive the budget axe?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott met Rural Financial Counselling Service officers In February, but the Commission of Audit has recommended the service be abolished. Andrew Meares/AAP

May 7, 2014. Last week’s Commission of Audit advocated a “commonsense approach to handling risks in society,” targeting drought assistance for its role in “discouraging drought preparedness and self-reliance”.

The Commission recommended the Farm Finance Concessional Loans Scheme be abolished. Although earmarked for productivity enhancing investments and debt restructuring, the scheme represents a form of interest rate subsidy, similar to the previously ended ECIRS (Exceptional Circumstances Interest Rate Subsidy).

The Commission’s call mirrors many previous calls from the Productivity Commission, most recently in the 2009 drought review. Yet, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce seems confident the measure will stay. In his view, abolishing the A$700 million concessional loans scheme would be “counterintuitive” to a recently announced and agreed government policy on drought assistance.

Droughts are a feature of the Australian landscape, and farmers have learnt to manage them, but not without significant hardship and financial burden.

As droughts gets more intense and occur more often, as indicated in climate models, farmers are also finding it difficult to cope in an increasingly competitive, globalised economy. Governments around the world are regularly called upon to help farmers.

In the deliberations leading to the next week’s federal budget, it’s worth asking: should farming be considered different to other small businesses seeking government support?

Getting policy right

When looking for policy solutions, it all boils down to the social merits of what governments do, and involves the balancing of opportunity costs. Simply stated, what else could we do with the funds targeted for drought support, and would it make matters worse?

The Commission of Audit argues:

the scheme encourages farms to take on more debt, when there is little evidence to suggest that farm businesses that are viable over the longer term have difficulty accessing commercial finance.

The proposed sale of Victoria’s Rural Finance Corporation (RFC) to Bendigo and Adelaide Bank for A$1.78 billion partly supports the Commission’s view on the commercial viability of rural finance businesses.

When interest rates are at a record low level, businesses that can prove their viability do not find it difficult to access finance.

It is widely believed that at any time of the interest rates cycle, concessional loan schemes carry the risk of distorting incentives for long-term planning such as drought preparedness. It can deter long-term unviable businesses from leaving farming, and thus extend the “agony” that the policy is trying to resolve.

Successive reviews of drought programs since 1997 have found that the ECIRS is ineffective and inequitable. For example, in 2009 the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Government Drought Support noted a number of issues. It found the ECIRS may:

  • provide incentives to increase debt
  • make farm businesses less responsive to drought conditions and
  • discourage farm businesses from adopting self reliant strategies.

Misguided incentives such as interest rate subsidies can also drive up property prices and dissuade much-needed new entrants.

Australian farmers are already facing uncertainty relating to changing environmental conditions that affect farming more directly. Farming is becoming increasingly more complex. And better business management, in particular risk management, is becoming the much-needed focus of farming.

While it may be reasonable to assume that the farmers' risk profile may have changed more than other businesses, it’s important to note that farmers also have access to specific measures to help smooth out income disparities caused by fluctuating market or seasonal conditions.

Farm Management Deposits

Beginning in 1992, the Farm Management Deposits (FMD) Scheme allows eligible farmers to make deposits into a bank account that are tax deductible in the year the deposits are made. The deposits become taxable income in the year they are withdrawn.

FMDs have become popular, particularly over recent years. A review of the scheme found that, although used mainly by mature-aged farmers in the early years of the scheme, with the onset of widespread drought across eastern Australia since 2002–03, the scheme has attracted younger farmers.

By June 2013, the value of FMD’s hit an all-time high of A$3.72 billion. By the end of January 2014, nearly 27% of an estimated 157,000 Australian farmers subscribed to FMDs. The average holding of $76,670, is higher than the highest estimate ($61,600) of the average super savings held by Australians, including farmers.

Distorting signals may be costly

What this suggests is that Australian farmers are taking business risk management seriously and government policies need to encourage such self-protection activities. Addressing mismatches in drought risk management, in particular social concerns that drive governments into quick fix solutions, may be better done through direct social policy.

Distorting the incentives for competitive farms that have invested their savings in preparing for vagaries of weather and other risks in working the land may not be wise.

On the other hand, the government also has a philosophical problem: if debt is bad for good governance, how can a government encourage farmers to take more debt?

Capital recycling plan good in theory, difficult in practice

6 May 2014. The provision of new infrastructure is a high priority for the Abbott government.

It is a worthy cause. New infrastructure will ensure we remain competitive in the international market. Reducing logistics costs could compensate any decrease in agriculture productivity, which may arise because of climate change. Tackling the infrastructure gap over the next few years will also ensure we are better prepared for the full impact of the ageing population. Public funds to finance infrastructure, or to undertake other typical government roles such as providing social insurance or defence, will be in short supply once this impact takes hold.

The Abbott government, however, faces a difficult task to deliver on its ambition to become an infrastructure focused government. The main challenge is financing infrastructure in a political environment where public debt is inherently bad, and the government narrative (both at the federal level but also across many of the states) is that there is a budgetary crisis.

Private funding through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) was once considered the solution to this conundrum. But it’s now understood that while PPPs can provide a meaningful contribution to funding infrastructure, they can turn negative if not carefully designed.

Along with a colleague at the University of Auckland, I studied the consequences of the private partner entering the post-construction phase with substantial debts. In two research papers we showed that the need for private partners to borrow large amounts to meet up-front construction costs creates real potential for strategic manipulation of the government.

From PPPs to capital recycling

More recently, capital recycling has taken centre stage as a favourite solution to funding infrastructure. Under this approach, the government sells existing income generating assets to build another asset.

Victoria has just become the first state to take advantage of the federal government’s 15% incentive payment for privatising assets, moving to sell the Rural Finance Corporation to Bendigo and Adelaide Bank for A$1.78 billion. It will also offer a 40-year lease of the Port of Melbourne, with the funds from both sales to go towards upgrading rail tracks in regional areas.

In a world where governments face constraints on how much they can borrow to invest in income generating assets, capital recycling can make sense. For example, if the public sector has a greater ability to bear demand risk than the private sector for some types of projects (like ports or airports), governments can fund the construction of the port or airport and own it until demand uncertainty is less material and the asset generates a reasonably steady income stream. An additional advantage is that if governments build to sell, there may be a more realistic (and less political) project assessment.

Unfortunately, like PPPs, capital recycling is no magic bullet either. To see why, we need to look at the types of assets that can be sold and how recycling can then work.

The simplest case to consider is that of public assets in competitive industries where a change of ownership will not have a significant impact on market outcomes such as prices, quality, and the availability of supply. In this case, selling the assets makes sense if the value of the asset under private ownership is greater than under public ownership and if this value can be realised through the sales process, taking into account transaction costs.

The first condition holds true if the private sector can operate the asset more efficiently. The second condition is more difficult to ensure, but generally speaking a well-designed auction can ensure that the asset is allocated to those who value it the most at a price above the value under public ownership.

The second type of public assets are those in industries where the government is a dominant supplier with the ability to determine prices. In this instance, in addition to the two conditions above, an effective regulatory regime needs to be in place for the asset sale to be worthwhile to society.

Infrastructure Australia included electricity generators and retailers in the first class of assets, and ports, freight rail, electricity distribution and transmission companies, and regional airports in the second category. It valued these assets around A$62 to $76 billion. We could add Medibank Private to the first class of assets and Australia Post to the second, adding perhaps another $7 billion to the value of assets potentially for sale.

A third class of assets includes those where the government is a dominant supplier but there is no effective regulatory framework or appropriate governance structure. Infrastructure Australia includes roads and water, and wastewater assets in this group.

Roads are likely to be excluded

The water assets alone are valued at A$54 billion to $63 billion, whereas the value of the road assets, while unknown, will be very large. However, the absence of a comprehensive road pricing system and the lack of governance arrangements (to ensure the right roads are built), effectively means roads will not be part of any capital recycling program, except for existing toll roads. A similar argument can be made about the water industry, where a myriad of arrangements exist across Australian states and territories.

This implies that a capital recycling program, covering the sale of assets in the first two types of assets mentioned above, would raise around A$70 billion. For recycling to work, however, the sale proceeds will need to be invested in other income generating assets. This is where things get complicated.

The estimated capital costs of Infrastructure Australia’s priority list is of the order of A$82 to $91 billion. It divides the list into four groups with the highest priority given to those projects that are ready to proceed and the lowest priority to those projects in an early stage of development.

The key issue is that most projects in the top two highest priority lists, adding up to over $A25 billion, are either road extensions and upgrades, or urban railways or busways. While worthwhile, these projects will not be suited for a capital recycling program until a comprehensive user pays system is in place. In fact, there are only two projects in those lists that would fit well into a capital recycling program, namely the Oakajee Port (A$5.4 billion) and the Darwin East Arm Port Expansion (A$336 million). This is well short of the revenue that may be raised by asset sales and so recycling of capital would not be very effective.

This means that capital recycling, while a potentially worthwhile concept in a world where governments cannot borrow directly, will be at best one additional tool for funding infrastructure. At worst, the proceeds from the sale of assets will be spent to ensure future electoral support, on projects that would not pass a cost-benefit test.

This article was republished with permission from The Conversation

Francis A. Boyle  Professor of LawProfessor Boyle. 5 May 2014. “Similarly, the demonstration more than a decade ago of a recombinant ectromelia (mousepox) virus construct that expresses IL-4 and is more resistant to the smallpox vaccine  has raised concerns of the potential creation of a vaccine-resistant smallpox virus. While the likelihood of the emergence of, or creation of, either drug- or vaccine-resistant versions of smallpox is unknown, continued investigation to identify additional countermeasures, for example, through screening using functional genomics or proteomics approaches, can further enhance our state of preparedness. Additional studies evaluating the safety and efficacy of drug combination therapies will also be needed. Certainly the current capabilities of synthetic biology and the availability of multiple variola virus genome sequences in the published literature make these scenarios more worrisome in the 21st century and also make the feasibility of ultimate final destruction of variola virus, itself, problematic .”

If you read between the lines one might conclude that the real reason they want to keep the live smallpox virus is in order to develop both drug and vaccine resistant versions of smallpox, and perhaps even by means of using  synthetic biology. How are they going to develop “countermeasures” unless they have already  developed the drug and vaccine resistant versions of the smallpox in the first place? Indeed, the use of the word “additional” tends to indicate that they have already developed drug and/or vaccine resistant versions of smallpox.

Remember that CDC are not  the “good guys” here. At the behest of the Reagan administration CDC deliberately shipped weapons specific biological agents to Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the hope and expectation that he would weaponize them and then use them against Iran. For the citations see my book Biowarfare and Terrorism.

And in one of the earliest Reports on the future of Synthetic Biology, the “life scientists” involved in preparing it  said that in order to facilitate  the future of Synthetic Biology, my Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 had to go. My BWATA stood in the way of what they planned to do. Eventhough I drafted my BWATA in strict coordination with the world’s  top life scientists at the Council for Responsible Genetics to make sure that it did not interfere with legitimate life science research. Ergo, they plan to use Synthetic Biology in order to engage in illegitimate death science research. All the more reason for the WHO’s WHA to kill off the remaining smallpox virus for good when the meet starting May 19.

Francis A. Boyle
Professor of Law
Author,  Biological Weapons Anti-terrorism Act of 1989, the U.S. domestic Implementing Legislation for the Biological Weapons Convention.

U.S. Scientist Pushes to Hang Onto Last Remaining Smallpox Virus

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

A health worker vaccinates a child against smallpox, circa 1962, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A U.S. scientist is advising against destroying the world's final known stocks of smallpox, which was eradicated from nature in the 1970s. A health worker vaccinates a child against smallpox, circa 1962, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A U.S. scientist is advising against destroying the world's final known stocks of smallpox, which was eradicated from nature in the 1970s. (U.N. photo)

A U.S. scientist has advised against eliminating the world's last known stocks of smallpox, just weeks before nations are set to reconsider destruction.

"The research agenda with live [smallpox] virus is not yet finished," Inger Damon, who oversees studies of the agent at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said in a newly published article co-authored with two other scientists.

Damon, who heads the agency's Poxvirus and Rabies Branch, and her colleagues argue that related agents cannot always substitute for live smallpox virus in lab experiments to quickly detect and contain the historical scourge, should it re-emerge.

A global eradication campaign wiped out smallpox from nature in the 1970s. However, the United States and other countries have spent decades developing new vaccines and drugs in case the agent is released from a secret stockpile, or assembled from scratch using emerging technologies.

In an interview with Global Security Newswire, Damon advised that state participants in the World Health Assembly -- the top deliberative body of the World Health Organization -- again delay setting any deadline for destroying the final known supplies of smallpox virus. The remaining caches are held at CDC headquarters and at a state laboratory in Russia.

"We can't predict what the results of the next … experiments are going to be," she said by telephone on Wednesday. "If we could do that, we could give a distinct and a definitive [destruction] timeline."

Her article -- written jointly with Clarissa Damaso of Brazil's Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and Grant McFadden of the University of Florida -- makes the case that further research with live virus is "vital" to developing safer vaccines, fully licensed drugs, and faster detection strategies.

Speaking to GSN, Damon said the article does not indicate what position the Obama administration will take at the World Health Assembly's May 19-24 meeting.

She expressed hope, though, that her piece "will be important in informing the official U.S. stance."

Russia and the United States successfully pushed in 2011 to delay any consideration of a destruction deadline until this year. That extended a series of postponements ever since a WHO advisory committee in 1990 recommended destroying the remaining virus.

Advisers to the global health agency reached general agreement in September that live virus stocks "need no longer be retained for further essential research." Its conclusions were echoed two months later by an independent panel of experts convened to examine recent developments in smallpox studies.

Speaking to GSN on Tuesday, epidemiologist Donald Henderson argued in favor of destroying the remaining virus stocks. He recommended focusing on ensuring adequate international supplies of older, less expensive vaccine instead of pursuing further research with live virus.

"We've had a couple of stabs at trying to develop these products as called for by the [United States] way back when, and it hasn't worked," said Henderson, who headed the World Health Organization's global smallpox eradication program in the 1960s and 1970s.

"If it comes to a majority vote in the World Health Assembly, which it's almost come to several times, I think the overwhelming desire will be to destroy," Henderson said.

Henderson and Isao Arita, another former leader of the WHO smallpox eradication effort, wrote in an April journal article that "logic dictates an early date" for the agent's destruction.

Retaining the stockpiles indefinitely, Henderson told GSN, could contribute to international suspicion that Washington and Moscow want the virus as a "deterrent" that they may choose to weaponize.

The virus originated early in human history, and is believed to have killed 300 million people between 1900 and its elimination from the environment.

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