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

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

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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