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October 19, 2001

Smallpox fears mount

'On Sept. 11, we learned that nothing is out of the question'

Margaret Munro National Post One of the crueller twists of the bioterror crisis is the growing concern terrorists could exploit the world's most celebrated public health success -- the eradication of smallpox -- to appalling ends.

Health officials in Canada, the United States and France are for the first time in years stockpiling vaccine against the disease. Smallpox, unlike anthrax, is highly contagious and would not respect international borders. It kills about half of the people it infects.

"Anthrax is awful and what is happening is awful," says Dr. Mark Miller, a Montreal physician and president of the Canadian Infectious Disease Society.

"But anthrax is treatable; there are antibiotics. The problem with smallpox is there is no treatment."

Dr. Miller says almost everyone in Canada is theoretically susceptible. To start, no one born in Canada or the United States since the early 1970s is immune, because smallpox vaccination has been deemed unnecessary for decades. And those who were inoculated as children are also vulnerable, says Dr. Miller, because they probably have only minimal residual immunity.

"About 10% to 15% of these people will die, instead of 50% of people who were never vaccinated," he says.

World health authorities thought they had rid the planet of the smallpox scourge in 1977 when medical swat teams, armed with needles and vaccines, tracked the last case of smallpox in Africa and eradicated it.

Two official repositories of the virus were kept, one at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., the other at Russia's state Research Center for Virology and Biotechnology. The stocks were kept alive, after much debate, in order to help produce vaccine in the unlikely event smallpox reappeared.

It is now widely believed many Soviet scientists experimented with using the smallpox virus as a weapon, in violation of the 1972 Bioweapons Convention Treaty. At least two clandestine labs in the former Soviet Union are reported to contain the smallpox virus, and one may have the capacity to produce tonnes of the virus every month, according to a report by Dr. Donald A. Henderson at the Center for Civilian Biodefence Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Henderson, who directed the World Health Organization's smallpox eradication program, says: "Moreover, Russian biologists, like physicists and chemists, may have left Russia to sell their services to rogue governments."

U.S. intelligence reports concluded in 1998 that clandestine stocks of smallpox virus probably existed in Russia, Iraq and North Korea.

Bioweapons specialists doubt it would be easy to "weaponize" smallpox. And health authorities stress there is no evidence the virus is on the loose or there is any immediate danger.

But they say countries need to be prepared. "On Sept. 11, we learned that nothing is out of the question," says Dr. Miller in Montreal.

Probably the easiest way to use smallpox as a weapon would be for a suicidal terrorist to infect himself and walk around a busy city street or mall. An infected individual can spread the virus for up to 14 days before symptoms -- which include severe aches, rash and pus-filled blisters -- appear, says Dr. Miller.

The only way to stop smallpox is through vaccination. The French and U.S. governments have announced plans to spend millions of dollars stockpiling vaccine, and Allan Rock, the Minister of Health, says Canada has thousands of doses of smallpox vaccine in stock and is planning to acquire more.

Doctors say there is good reason to stock up on the vaccine. But they see no reason to start inoculating people, in part because the vaccine can have serious side effects.

Historically, the vaccine caused aching arms, pus-filled sores in one in 20 people and severe brain damage in one in 100,000, says Dr. Miller. He is against widespread vaccination but does want the country to have ready access to 30 million doses in case it is needed.

A February report from Health Canada said that in the event of a smallpox attack, "the number of casualties could run into the tens of thousands."

A recent military exercise in the United States predicted casualties in the millions if smallpox started circulating and there was not enough vaccine to go around.

Dr. Mark Bigham, an epidemiologist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says such huge casualty figures are "a bit of a stretch."

He says the much more plausible scenario would be what happened in Africa in the late 1970s, when health authorities eradicated smallpox. The last infected individual was identified and doctors vaccinated everyone who had been near the individual. "They were able to, in effect, immunologically quarantine the virus," says Dr. Bigham, who expects the same could be done in the event of a smallpox attack.

The key, he says, will be having enough vaccine available and ready to deploy quickly.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 19, 2001



10/18/2001 - Updated 10:27 AM ET Officials want funding for smallpox vaccine

WASHINGTON (AP) Federal health officials are asking Congress for $1.5 billion to fight bioterrorism, with one in three dollars going to fight a disease that hasn't killed anybody in decades: smallpox.

The Bush administration is negotiating with four drug companies to buy an additional 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine by next year. There now are 15.4 million doses on hand.

It would cost $509 million, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told a Senate hearing Wednesday, about one-third of the $1.5 billion that his department is requesting.

Vaccinations have not been given in the United States since 1972, or in other countries since the late 1970s. That's because smallpox was eradicated from the world, meaning there is no need for preventive shots.

There are no plans now to resume vaccinations, Thompson stressed Wednesday.

"Sometime in the future may be a discussion that may lead to voluntary vaccinations, but that decision has not been made," he told reporters.

Unlike anthrax, smallpox is highly contagious. Bioterrorism experts say a release of the virus into the population is the scariest scenario they can imagine, though it also considered a remote possibility.

If Smallpox Has Been Completely Eradicated. The Only Specimens Remaining Are in Govt. Labs in the US and Russia. If Iraq and North Korea got it who gave it to them? By the Way, They Began Stockpiling Antibiotics Three Years Ago -- What Great Timing! Just hope the UN does get it.

More fear mongering propaganda & social engineering! awdragon

-- awdragon (, October 19, 2001.

There are SO many dreadful (fatal, highly contagious) viruses, and it is SO easy to spread them through their natural biological vectors; that the terrorists would have NO problem whatsoever "blindsiding" the United States and the world with a worldwide epidemic comparable to the Bubonic Plague in medieval Europe or the U.S. flu pandemic of 1918.

However, due to obvious "blowback" concerns, the terrorists won't execute this plan unless and until it is clear the U.S. and world is about to "win" the War on Terrorism. Hence, this threat and war remains incredibly dangerous up to the very end --- as total defeat is VERY likely to be snatched out of the jaws of victory.

A wounded "tiger" is the most dangerous, being desperate, and having little to lose. And the willingness to commit suicide to achieve objectives is the factor that causes this scenario to be chillingly and grimly plausible.

Happy (real goblins, this year) Halloween!

-- Robert Riggs (, October 19, 2001.

Has anyone seen any data on genetically altering smallpox or some other virus to make it even more lethal and infectious? Is there any evidence such work has been done? I ask only because it seems that bioweapons would be a logical area for experimentation by those countries with an interest.

-- Cash (, October 19, 2001.

I still can't believe small pox is a major threat, because it is so unmanageable. Its quick, airborne spread is too much of a danger to the terrorists too. Thus, why would they risk it? Not all that many Muslims covet suicide, only the fanatical few.

-- R2D2 (, October 20, 2001.

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