* Iran spearheaded opposition to U.S., Russian plan
* Debate has already dragged on 25 years
GENEVA, May 24 (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 because of the risk of stockpiles falling into the wrong hands.
The United States has argued more research is needed into vaccines against the disease eradicated more than 30 years ago.
“There has been a lot of discussion around the smallpox issue,” Pierre Formenty of the WHO told a press briefing.
“Three years from now, we will resume the discussion.”
He said there had been consensus the variola, or smallpox virus, stocks needed to be destroyed but the task of setting a date would be broached in three years, rather than the five years put forward by the United States and Russia.
Already the debate over when to destroy the stocks has rumbled on for 25 years and resurfaced late last week.
Debate dragged on late into the evening on Monday and Tuesday, the final day of the WHO’s annual meeting, was the last chance to hammer out a compromise.
The United States and others in its camp also want guarantees all other stocks have been destroyed or transferred to their two official repositories.
Some countries have argued technology exists to develop vaccines and anti-virals without a live virus and those on both sides of the divide have raised concerns about germ warfare.
In February, Siga Technologies Inc was awarded a U.S. government contract for a smallpox antiviral. (Reporting by Barbara Lewis, Editing by Michel Rose)