The Smallpox Wars


"The Smallpox Wars: Biowarfare vs. Public Health," by Wendy Orent

The White House announced Thursday that President Clinton has decided to retain the US held stores of the smallpox virus. Leaning heavily on a March 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, which explored the scientific need for retaining the virus, the Administraton reversed its 1996 decision to support destruction of all legitimate stocks. The IOM report, which did not recommend either destruction or retention, nevertheless states that the live virus would have "an essential role" in the development of antiviral agents "for use in anticipation of a large outbreak of smallpox."

Donald A. Henderson and his supporters, predictably annoyed by the IOM report, went on the offensive shortly after it was released, insisting that, in effect, scientists will be scientists and would naturally want to preserve an object of study. The issue is not scientific at all, they insist, it is political. But the IOM report started a current that could not be diverted. In 1996 few outside the intelligence community understood the threat of bioterrorism or realized that smallpox had proliferated far beyond the two legitimate supplies. Today it is another matter, and Henderson himself has helped to create our new understanding of the risks we face from lethal agents in the hands of terrorists. The concern over bioterrorism is not a tide he can turn away at will - and it has washed right over the issue of destruction.

Recent press reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post state that, in deciding to retain the virus, the Administration has ignored pleas "from scores of nations." Which nations those are no one seems to know. According to a senior Administration official who speaks only on condition of anonymity, the idea of the Administration ignoring the international outcry is a real exaggeration: "While there will be vigorous international debate on this issue, to say that there are 'international pleas' for the destruction of the smallpox virus is overstating the case." Another government scientist notes, "I don't think it's even on the radar screen of most countries' World Health Assembly representatives."

Supporters of retention, who have fought this battle for years, are jubilant. "The government has made the right decision for the right reasons," says Alan P. Zelicoff, senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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