proposal to destroy the virus stocks caused many to reflect
upon the possibility of someone using the virus as a biological
weapon. Suspicions arose that certain governments or terrorist
groups may want--or already have--virulent strains of the
virus. Concerned individuals have voiced passionate resistance
to the destruction of the United States' stocks, arguing
that if others secretly kept the virus and developed it
as a biological weapon, we would be completely at their
victims of the smallpox epidemic of 1538 are coverd
with shrouds as two Indians, at right, lie dying:
scientists oppose destruction of the virus at a time when
so many new techniques have been developed for studying
mammalian viruses. They believe this step would cause a
tragic loss of information about many pathogenic viruses,
perhaps those that cause AIDS and hepatitis. Their arguments
are countered by
who point to the fact that the DNA of smallpox
has been sequenced and cloned, and that, even if the viruses
are destroyed, the cloned genes will be available for
research. Such counter arguments provoke heated comments
from those who would maintain the virus. "Anyone who says
the DNA sequence (of the genes) is enough doesn't understand
virology, and that includes some famous virologists,"
said one advocate of maintaining the virus. "To me, on
a scientific basis, we're taking an extremely precious
resource and destroying it...and destroying it ends the
whole issue ofpossibly understanding it in the future."
has been an outspoken advocate in the argument to destroy
the smallpox vials. A professor at the Johns Hopkins School
of Public Health, he is the founder and director of the
Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies,
a think tank that considers what could be done to protect
Americans during a biological event or warfare.
1988, Henderson's organization put together a working
paper of deliberations regarding the destruction of the
virus. "The deliberate reintroduction of smallpox into
the population would be an international crime of unprecedented
proportions," he says. "Spreading of a highly lethal epidemic
in an essentially unprotected population, with limited
supplies of vaccine, no therapeutic drugs, and with shortages
of hospital beds suitable for patient isolation, is an
paper concluded by concurring with the WHO resolution
to destroy the vials and encouraged readers to seek the
support of all concerned governments in carrying it out.
arguments for keeping the virus carried the day, and on
April 22, 1999, President Clinton sought a delay in the
destruction of the stocks of virus based on a recommendation
of his advisors, reflecting agreement among all departments.
The president's message indicated that the research value
of keeping the virus and the uncertainty about who else
may have clandestine stores of it may have played a part
in his decision.
MORE QUESTIONS, FEW ANSWERS
politics, economics, ideologies, and ethics have come
crashing together as we grope toward a course of action.
There is too much we don't know or that we're not being
told. The WHO says it has about half a million doses of
vaccine and can produce more. Henderson estimates that
the stored vaccine supply in the United States might supply
about seven million doses. But these are pitifully small
numbers, and we don't know the quality of that vaccine
and how effective it would be in preventing infection.
argument for maintaining our virus stocks is that our
own supply might serve as a deterrent to potential aggressors.
As Henderson says, "There are those who believe that unless
it can be absolutely guaranteed that all stocks of virus
are destroyed, no action internationally could or should
be taken," a rationale similar to the nuclear deterrent
strategy that we have lived with for half a century.
nuclear weapons, the argument may have a rationale," he
adds. "However, does a decision, for example, to destroy
all known stocks of smallpox virus in the USA without
assurance that Russia would do the same have comparable
implications? Does this suggest that if one country were
to use smallpox as a bioweapon that it would be the intent
of the USA to retaliate in kind? It seems unlikely."
what circumstances, then, would we ever use a deterrent?
If the answer is none, then of what value is a deterrent?
What other purposes might there be in maintaining our
we maintain stocks to continue research to perfect a new
vaccine or to unlock the secrets of viral pathogenicity,
a new series of questions arises. If these are meaningful
and realistic benefits--which some people believe them
to be--then it seems reasonable to ask whether these benefits
also appeared meaningful and realistic years ago, when
all but the two known remaining virus stocks were destroyed.
Assuming the same concerns were apparent then, we ask
what has been done
in the area of vaccine development in the last 20 years.
If there has been progress, we should know. If there has
been no effort, we must ask why.
work hasn't been done along these applied public health
lines, it could be that our policy makers see no value
in developing a vaccine for a disease that no longer
exists, which on the surface seems quite reasonable.
If so, what has been the value in maintaining any stocks
of virus for the last 25 years?
argument against the issue is clear: the smallpox virus
simply isn't needed to create more vaccines. "The smallpox
virus is a wholly different organism and has never been
used in vaccine development," he says. "Vaccines made
today would still be made from the vaccinia virus, which
provides a broad immunity that is effective against
all known strains of smallpox."
he said, smallpox were to be released in a metropolitan
area, 100 to 135 million doses of the vaccine would
be made available--"enough to handle the need and not
create a panic situation." A standby facility would
be ready to produce 20 million more doses each month.
"With that amount we could feel confident that we're
covered in this country, and make the vaccine available
to other countries."
the June 1999 deadline for the destruction of the known
virus stocks approached, the World Health Assembly (the
highest governing body of the WHO) must have known that
the U.S. and Russia were far from agreement about destroying
them. Perhaps as a compromise, the Health Assembly amended
the WHO position to one advocating "temporary retention,
up to not later than 2002, for the purpose of further
international research." The recommendation was reaffirmed
by an international group of scientific and public health
experts meeting at WHO headquarters in December 1999.
it is impossible to eradicate any disease in the absolute
sense. Nobody knows how the smallpox virus originated.
There are, however, striking similarities between smallpox
virus and other primate viruses, suggesting an evolutionary
relationship. If the smallpox virus evolved as a human
pathogen some 10,000 years ago from, say, the milder
monkeypox virus, there is no reason to believe that
such an evolutionary event could happen only once. It
is difficult to imagine any microbial disease being
permanently eradicated, and Pasteur's dying message,
"The microbes will have the last word," takes on new
thought that someone could earnestly consider using
the virus as a biological weapon deadens the spirit.
If that is the case, it makes little difference whether
or not we maintain our viral stores. The virus is not
our enemy; it is only a vehicle. Our future will not
be determined by whether or not we keep the virus, grow
the virus, mutate the virus. Our hope is in the gossamer
connection between our minds, our hearts, our music,
our philosophy, our science, our courage, our dreams.
All these are parts of the fabric of our lives. Nothing
is separate. The poet Roethke summed it up in a few
everything comes to one,
we dance on, dance on, dance on."
Levin is a professor of biology at Oberlin.