…is the name of a 2003 book by best selling author, Richard Preston. I was very taken by The Hot Zone which he wrote almost 20 years ago about the emerging nasty viruses that came from central Africa, one of which was Ebola. But this next book, written in the shadow of 9/11, caught passing interest as it chronicled the famous anthrax letter that went to the Hart Congressional building addressed to then Senator Tom Daschle. Lost in the conversation was the reemergence of the potential apocalyptic consequences of weaponized smallpox…
Smallpox kills 40-50% of the unfortunate hosts it infects — and that assumes that they are healthy. The numbers are much worse in the immunocompromised (transplant and cancer patients, elderly, young children). In 1980 the world declared that smallpox — the greatest single killer of mankind with over a billion lives lost to the virus in the past 100 years alone — was eradicated. This declaration remains on the official CDC website. But not so fast. Right now the “official” CDC policy reads like this:
After smallpox was eliminated from the world, routine vaccination against smallpox among the general public was stopped because it was no longer needed. However, because of concern that variola virus might be used as an agent of bioterrorism, the U.S. government has stockpiled enough smallpox vaccine to vaccinate everyone who would need it if a smallpox outbreak were to occur.
But there are several factors at work that makes this seem, well, specious:
- In 1996 as chronicled so well by Preston in his book, Demon in the Freezer, a Russian defector, Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov (now going by Ken Alibek) told a troubling story that the Russians had willfully violated the spirit and letter of the Biological Weapoms Convention Agreement between the US, Soviets, and the UK signed in 1972. He corroborated what an earlier 1989 defector, Vladimir Pasechnik, had said about the Soviets having tons of weaponized smallpox hidden from the West. “Weaponized” smallpox alters its capacity to be distributed (fine air particles) and could even be genetically altered (since proven to be possible) to completely circumvent our vaccines (that are no longer being used). Pasechnik died at 64 in November 2001 in the UK allegedly of a stroke, but many feel the circumstances were mysterious to say the least. Bottom line: there may be a lot of weaponized smallpox out there, and people like Alibek say that a good deal of it was sold off to bad people when the Soviet Union fell apart. At that time they had the capacity to manufacture 80-100 tons of the bug annually.
- One of the more efficient ways to disperse large amounts of smallpox is with an ICBM or Intercontinental Ballistic Missile with a nosecone that splits up. It is called a MIRV or multiple independent reentry vehicle Each MIRV effectively has ten warheads, and each warhead contains ten grapefruit-sized bomblets. With parachutes these bomblets can then blow out a mist of variola or smallpox. A single MIRV missile could deliver forty-five pounds of smallpox mist over a metropolitan area. Cruise missiles could do the same. Clearly, the populace would know it has happened, but the 4 day window to get 300 million doses of vaccine out to an American population is clearly unrealistic. Russian would not do this. Iran or North Korea would. We should not worry about the nukes but rather we should be concerned about the bugs. A single missile fired from a disguised freighter off the coast of NYC would wipe out 10s of millions of people both in NYC and elsewhere as containment would be impossible.
- 35-50% of all those exposed would die. A single virion or virus particle will almost always “explode” (multiply uncontrollably) in a healthy human being. Vaccinations were stopped in 1972 when we had the disease “eradicated”. Those of us who did receive the vaccinia vaccination should comfort ourselves in the knowledge that it wears off after 5 years. And this assumes that the new smallpox has not been weaponized to get around the vaccine — which it most certainly would be. Antiviral drugs have zero testing against unweaponized smallpox, much less against the genetically modified versions. Another problem: it is unethical to use human subjects in this illness, at least among civilized nations. There is no animal model for smallpox as it does not “take” — even in monkeys at normal exposure doses.
- And finally, there is the “human bomblet”. Knowingly (jihadis seeking martyrdom) or unknowingly (desperate illegal immigrants nefariously infected by foreign agents shortly before being smuggled across a porous border to then be sent to numerous sanctuary cities), this form of distribution is the greatest threat. Until our immigration policies and procedures are much more stringently enforced, many people — from counter terrorism experts to authors of modern thrillers — feel that we are essentially “sitting ducks”.
So, although we are all in various ways concerned about what kind of world, nation, city, and community we want to live in — open borders, a smaller military, greater ethnic diversity, etc — we should all be concerned what kind of world, nation, city, and community we would like to die in. I would prefer that it not be from the pox which is one of the worst illnesses imaginable. Ebola has nothing on smallpox, and it is much easier to contain.