The eradication of smallpox

2007-12-08

in Bombs and rockets, Science, Security

On this day in 1979, the World Health Organization certified that smallpox had been eliminated from the wild. It was probably the only intentional extinction in human history, and it was a considerable boon to the human race. The disease is an atrocious one, and it took a heavy toll across history. Notably, it caused much of the death associated with the arrival of Europeans in North America.

The extinction raises a number of questions. One is whether it will ever be repeated. We came close with polio. Very few people would mourn the elimination of tuberculosis, malaria, or AIDS. Worldwide eradication requires global coordination – something very hard to bring about when territories exist outside the control of any state. Think of the tribal areas bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Another issue has to do with smallpox itself. It was horrifically destructive to the First Nations because they lacked any of the immunity conferred by prior exposure. Now, the whole world is in essentially the same boat. An intentional or accidental release of the weaponized smallpox produced by many states could thus cause of devastating global pandemic. It rather makes one wish we had never turned it into a weapon in the first place.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan December 8, 2007 at 8:01 pm

See also:

Malaria in the 21st century
Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

Anon December 9, 2007 at 4:56 am

And then the rats came for them, thousands of them. Dirty, dirty, rats.

. May 25, 2010 at 2:29 pm

“Most people today have no immunity to smallpox. The vaccine begins to wear off in many people after ten years. Mass vaccination for smallpox came to a worldwide halt around twenty-five years ago. There is now very little smallpox vaccine on hand in the United States or anywhere else in the world. The World Health Organization once had ten million doses of the vaccine in storage in Geneva, Switzerland, but in 1990 an advisory committee recommended that most of it be destroyed, feeling that smallpox was longer a threat. Nine and a half million doses are assumed to have been cooked in an oven, leaving the W.H.O. with a total supply of half a million doses — one dose of smallpox vaccine for every twelve thousand people on earth. A recent survey by the W.H.O. revealed that there is only one factory in the world that has recently made even a small quantity of the vaccine, and there may be no factory capable of making sizable amounts. The vaccine was discovered in the age of Thomas Jefferson, and making a lot of it would seem simple, but so far the United States government has been unable to get any made at all. Variola virus is now classified as a Biosafety Level 4 hot agent — the most dangerous kind of virus — because it is lethal, airborne, and highly contagious, and is now exotic to the human species, and there is not enough vaccine to stop an outbreak. Experts feel that the appearance of a single case of smallpox anywhere on earth would be a global medical emergency.

At the present time, smallpox lives officially in only two repositories on the planet. One repository is in the United States, in a freezer at the headquarters of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta — the C.D.C. The other official smallpox repository is in a freezer at a Russian virology institute called Vector, also known as the State Research Institute of Virology and Biotechnology, which is situated outside the city of Novosibirsk, in Siberia. Vector is a huge, financially troubled former virus-weapons-development facility — a kind of decayed Los Alamos of viruses — which is trying to convert to peaceful enterprises.

There is a growing suspicion among experts that the smallpox virus may also live unofficially in clandestine biowarfare laboratories in a number of countries around the world, including labs on military bases in Russia that are closed to outside observers. The Central Intelligence Agency has become deeply alarmed about smallpox. Since 1995, a number of leading American biologists and public-health doctors have been given classified national-security briefings on smallpox. They have been shown classified evidence that as recently as 1992 Russia had the apparent capability of launching strategic-weapons-grade smallpox in special biological warheads on giant SS-18 intercontinental missiles that were targeted on the major cities of the United States. In the summer of last year, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan in a test, and the missile fell into the sea. Some knowledgeable observers thought that the missile could have been designed to carry a biologic warhead. If it had carried smallpox and landed in Japan, it could have devastated Japan’s population: Japan has almost no smallpox vaccine on hand and its government seems to have no ability to deal with a biological attack. The United States government keeps a list of nations and groups that it suspects either have clandestine stocks of smallpox or seem to be trying to buy or steal the virus. The list is classified, but it is said to include Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, and Serbia. The list may also include the terrorist organization of Osama bin Laden and, possibly, the Aum Shinrikyo sect of Japan — a quasi-religious group that had Ph.D. biologists as members and a belief that an apocalyptic war will bring them worldwide power. Aum members released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, and, as the year 2000 approaches, the group is still active in Japan and in Russia. In any case, the idea that smallpox lives in only two freezers was never anything more than a comfortable fiction. No one knows exactly who has smallpox today, or where they keep the virus, or what they intend to do with it.”

. September 12, 2011 at 6:58 pm

SIR – I read with great interest your article about the challenges facing the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, in which my organisation, Rotary International, is a big partner, having contributed more than $1 billion (“Late? Or never?”, July 23rd). You reported on the frank assessment of the programme by Sir Liam Donaldson, who chairs the Independent Monitoring Board. We completely agree with the board’s conclusion that funding is key to our ultimate success. But as Sir Liam’s report tells us, we also need urgent action from our current supporters, and for new governmental and private-sector donors to step up.

You mentioned that the number of polio cases today is “a mere 1%” of what it was in 1988, when 350,000 cases were reported. Our success is even better than that, with fewer than 300 cases reported so far this year. And we observed a milestone in July when India, one of the four remaining polio endemic countries, went a full six months without reporting a case.

John Hewko
General secretary
Rotary International
Evanston, Illinois

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