Wendy Orent

Wendy Orent, an anthropologist, has written on smallpox proliferation for the Sciences and for the Los Angeles Times.

Recent Articles

The Return of Smallpox

O n Tuesday evening, October 22, the phone rang. It was a federal official I have known for years. "The U.S. government can't sit on this much longer," he told me. His normally calm voice was cracking. "Three people down in Florida have a rash; 30 are in quarantine. The CDC is all over it." He would not say the word we both were thinking: smallpox. "I can't stay on the phone; turn on the news," he said. I thought it was the end of the world. By the end of next year, the U.S. government probably will have grown enough cell-culture smallpox vaccine to immunize everyone in the country. In four or five years, testing of new antiviral drugs presumably will have progressed, giving us a good idea of whether post-infection treatment of smallpox will actually work. But right now? What can we do right now? Not a lot. The Florida rashes were a false alarm. By the next morning, four doctors had diagnosed shingles in the afflicted patients, who with their contacts were released from quarantine...

The Smallpox Wars

UPDATE: " The White House announced Thursday that President Clinton has decided to retain the US held stores of the smallpox virus.... " (4/25/99) The poet Robert Frost once said the world would end in ice or fire. One or the other will also be the fate of the smallpox virus—and we don't yet know which. Smallpox, driven out of nature but not yet out of history, faces the final judgment of the World Health Organization (WHO), where ice represents not death, but half-life, frozen inertness, and fire comes in the form of autoclaves, to pressure-cook the strains into oblivion. In 1986 the Executive Committee on Orthopox of the WHO unanimously decided to destroy the last strains of smallpox left in the world. Thirteen years later they are still trying to impose that sentence: the date set for destruction is now June 30, 1999. But what seemed so clear in 1986 has now exploded into confusion as scientists, defense officials, and policymakers in the U...

The Smallpox Wars

SPECIAL UPDATE (4/25/99): "The Smallpox Wars: Biowarfare vs. Public Health," by Wendy Orent T he 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,...

The Smallpox Wars:

New fears of bioterrorism in the wake of the September 11th attacks have made smallpox front-page news. Could an epidemic be unleashed intentionally? In this 1999 article from The American Prospect , Wendy Orent examines the history and politics of smallpox eradication. And she makes a persuasive case for why we should hang on to our small stockpile of the virus (which, in 2001, the Centers for Disease Control still possess). The poet Robert Frost once said the world would end in ice or fire. One or the other will also be the fate of the smallpox virus--and we don't yet know which. Smallpox, driven out of nature but not yet out of history, faces the final judgment of the World Health Organization (WHO), where ice represents not death, but half-life, frozen inertness, and fire comes in the form of autoclaves, to pressure-cook the strains into oblivion. In 1986 the Executive Committee on Orthopox of the WHO unanimously decided to destroy the last strains of smallpox left in the world...

After Anthrax

Poking my head down, looking into the abyss of a four-story-tall, 20,000-liter fermenter, which was one of 10 there to produce anthrax for weapons, made me shudder. It made me wonder, what were they thinking? This was a big facility, [with] just an awesome capability to destroy life. In a mobilization period, it was going to produce and weaponize 300 metric tons of anthrax. What were they thinking ?" The speaker is Andrew Weber, the Department of Defense's special adviser for threat reduction policy. He is a clear-eyed, mild-mannered man who has looked into the abyss in more ways than one, but who still has the heart of an idealist. Weber is one of the foremost advocates of Russian and American scientific collaboration. And he was the first to see for himself the gigantic biowarfare plant in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, after the fermenters and the bomblet fill machines were turned off forever. "They ought to turn Stepnogorsk into a bioweapons museum, before they tear it down completely...