Smallpox as a Bioweapon

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Last semester, I gave a presentation in my CAS 100 class about smallpox being used as a biological weapon.  Since it relates to what we discussed last week, I thought I would share some of the more interesting things I found during my research.

Like we mentioned in class, smallpox was eradicated over 30 years ago.  That means that most people around the world have zero immunity built up against the smallpox virus.  Vaccination hasn't occurred in the United States since 1972.  Today, most people believe there are only two stockpiles remaining in existence.  One at the CDC in Atlanta and one in Russia.  However, the truth is far more frightening.

In 1992, a few years after the conclusion of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, Dr. Ken Alibek defected to America from Russia.  As a former leader of the Soviet bioweapons program, he had some shocking news for our government.  According to Dr. Alibek, the USSR volunteered to be a major player in the smallpox eradication program in order to construct the perfect weapon.  Some of the smallpox vials provided to the USSR for vaccine development were actually used to create a weaponized version of smallpox.  The most virulent strain of smallpox, labeled India 67, was the choice strain used in weaponization by the Soviets.  At its peak, the Soviet bioweapon program was producing hundreds of tons of weaponized smallpox per year.  On top of the weaponization, dissemination methods were also perfected.  Dr. Alibek even mentioned that the Soviets had developed aerial bombs and ballistic missiles that could deliver the smallpox from hundreds of miles away.  When asked for his thoughts on the Soviet's weaponization of smallpox, Dr. Alibek described it as "the most powerful and effective weapon ever created to eliminate human life."

The worst news of all is that the USSR stockpile of hundreds of tons of weaponized smallpox is now missing.  Dr. Alibek suspects that most of it was sold off by disgruntled scientists working on the project following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  That means that we have no idea how much smallpox is actually out there.  It's not just two vials stored safely away in government research facilities.  Any country or terrorist organization willing to pay for it may already have their hands on fully weaponized smallpox ready for delivery.  According to our DoD, it is believed that North Korea, Iraq, and Russia are already capable of using smallpox as a weapon.  It is also suspected that China, Cuba, India, Israel, and Pakistan are on the verge of being attack-ready. 

Even with the threat looming, many people still hold onto the belief that there will never be anyone crazy enough to initiate a biological attack of this magnitude on an enemy; but look back to World War II when it was level-headed America who chose to drop not one, but two atomic weapons on Japan.  All it may take now to launch a massive biological attack is a country who is backed into a corner in a time of war and who is willing to do anything to save themselves.

Sources:

"Can the Line Against Bio-terror Hold?." The Economist 381.8508 (16 Dec. 2006): pp. 60-61.
Flight, Colette. "Silent Weapon: Smallpox and Biological Warfare." BBC. 5 Nov. 2009. 9 Sept.        2010. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/pox_weapon_01.shtml>.
Dire, Daniel J., MD. "Biological Warfare." eMedicineHealth.com. 5 Oct. 2005. 9 Sept. 2010.        <http://www.emedicinehealth.com/biological_warfare/page9_em.htm>.
Rauch, Jonathan. "Smallpox is Bush's Worst Failure." reason.com. 17 Nov. 2003. 9 Sept.               2010. <http://reason.com/archives/2003/11/17/smallpox-is-bushs-worst-failur>.
 "Smallpox." World Health Organization. 9 Sept. 2010. <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/                 factsheets/smallpox/en/>.

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The fact that we’re not sure how much smallpox is out there, how it’s weaponized, or who has it is a scary thought. Since it has been eradicated for over 30 years now, a weaponized smallox virus would be extremely infectious. The CDC claims the United States government has enough vaccine stockpiled to protect its entire population (http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/smallpox/vaccination/facts.asp). Fortunately, the vaccine described on the CDC website is a useful vaccine-even as long as three days post-exposure. The process of distributing upwards of 300 million vaccines seems daunting though. The vaccine isn’t perfect; some safety concerns remain but the CDC argue that the vaccine’s protective benefits far outweigh the risks.

Also, here’s an article the USA Today recently published about a new and improved vaccine for smallpox (http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2010-05-25-smallpox25_ST_N.htm).

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