Death of a Virus

JOAN BECK

February 11, 1992|By JOAN BECK

Chicago. -- Is there ever reason to wipe out the last survivors of a life form, to terminate forever, deliberately and with cold calculation, living things that can never be duplicated?

What if the life forms might possibly be useful against enemies in some future war? What if they contain genetic secrets still undiscovered or unimagined? What if some day there might be a use for these organisms after they are extinct?

Unbelievably, such questions are still being raised about the planned execution -- now expected by December 1993 -- of the last known smallpox virus. The arguments made for its TTC preservation sound like silly mockeries of legitimate concerns about endangered species, comparing smallpox virus to whales and butterflies, as one scientist did. Such sentimentality has helped postpone a necessary step that should have been taken years ago.

The smallpox virus is a serial killer responsible for the death and disfigurement of tens of millions of people over the last 3,000 years. Its most virulent form killed half of those it infected, blinded others and left most survivors with ugly scars. Even a milder strain took the lives of one victim in 10.

Smallpox wiped out armies, plagued nations, changed the course of history. Smallpox brought by European settlers weakened or almost wiped out many American Indian tribes. Infection carried by the soldiers of Hernando Cortes destroyed half of the Incas and eventually killed 3.5 million people in what is now Mexico. Smallpox is certain to kill again and again if it ever escapes its supposedly safe containment -- as it has more than once in the past. It should never, ever have that opportunity.

The eradication of smallpox is a great human triumph, the first time nations have ever worked together to make a fearsome disease extinct. But it is long past time to finish the job, to take the final step and destroy the last remaining virus.

The historic war against smallpox began in 1966, when the World Health Organization announced its plan to wipe the virus from the face of the Earth. Even then, despite widely available vaccine, the loathsome disease was infecting 10 million to 15 million people a year.

Scientifically, the WHO plan was simple. Vaccination programs would be undertaken, using battalions of health-care workers in every country where the disease still occurred. Each new case would be isolated and all contacts immunized.

Practically, it was much more difficult. WHO workers, including 2,000 epidemiologists from 50 countries, had to battle awesome environmental hazards, famines, political terrors, native suspicions and other threats to health.

But they began to win. Finally, the virus was confined to four countries, then two. Health workers canvassed the last stricken areas house by house, checked rashes, offered rewards to locate new cases, crossed their fingers. In 1975, they found the last case of the most virulent form of smallpox -- a girl, 3, in Bangladesh. The last victim of a milder strain was a 26-year-old hospital cook in Somalia in 1977. Because no animals or insects harbor the virus and no natural reservoirs of the disease exist, the historic victory seemed won.

But, tragically, man-made reservoirs of the virus remained. In 1975, 75 laboratories around the world held stocks of frozen smallpox virus. Many were destroyed at WHO request. By 1978, there were 14.

Then, that year, somehow, virulent smallpox virus escaped from a research facility at the University Medical School in Birmingham, England. Somehow it traveled through ventilating ducts and infected a medical photographer working on a floor above. Janet Parker, 41, died of smallpox. Her mother recovered after a milder case. Her father suffered a fatal heart attack. The noted virologist who directed the Birmingham lab committed suicide by slashing his throat with scissors.

Stunned by the Parker case, the laboratories that still held smallpox virus heeded the urgings of WHO and shipped them to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta or to the Research Institute of Viral Preparations in Moscow. Presumably, no other sources remain.

The arguments for keeping even these two supplies of virus are dangerous and silly. No matter how securely they are guarded, accidents can happen. The old Soviet Union is politically unstable. The stockpiles could be a tempting target for terrorists. Even the assertion that the virus might be needed some day for biological warfare isn't convincing. Other disease organisms are more effective for that terrible purpose. The virus itself is not necessary to produce vaccine. That's made from related strains of cowpox. Millions of doses are already stockpiled. More can be made rather quickly.

The DNA of two of the most virulent strains and two less dangerous ones are now being mapped so their genetic blueprints can be saved.

But not until the day when WHO, American and Russian health officials together carry out the final destruction by incineration of the remaining virus in Atlanta and Moscow can we finally celebrate the monumental victory over this ugly, ancient scourge. Nothing should interfere. We have already waited too long to cinch this victory.

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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