An Unwise Reprieve for a Killer

January 02, 1994|By JOAN BECK

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Destruction of the last remaining smallpox virus, planned for New Year's Eve 1993, has been indefinitely postponed.

The reprieve is scientific hubris at its worst, soft-headed ecological sentimentality carried to a ridiculous and dangerous extreme. A new execution date must be set as quickly as possible and carried out without fail.

Smallpox was supposed to have been wiped off the face of the earth several years ago by unprecedented international cooperation led by the World Health Organization. It has been -- except for two stockpiles of the deadly virus being preserved in liquid nitrogen at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the Research Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow.

Both stockpiles were supposed to be destroyed by heat at the same time on the last day of 1993. Now there will be more meetings, more discussions, more arguments, more study, more delays.

None of the arguments for postponing the victory over smallpox makes sense.

Some scientists who want to preserve the stockpiles say much can still be learned about the virus. But the time, money and expertise would be far better spent studying viruses that currently cause so much human misery and death. Obvious examples are AIDS and influenza. Another excuse for delay is the effort to preserve information about smallpox by mapping its DNA. Again, skilled resources should not be diverted to a disease that need never again harm human beings.

It isn't necessary to save smallpox virus in case a need arises to produce more vaccine against the disease. No known reservoirs of infection exist. Millions of doses of vaccine are still available. And the vaccine is made using relatively harmless cowpox -- not smallpox -- virus.

Even the unconscionable argument that smallpox might some day be needed for biological warfare makes no evil sense. Other organisms are more effective, given modern delivery systems.

The sentimental feeling that no irreplaceable, living organism should be deliberately exterminated is best countered by a quick reminder of what smallpox has done to human beings over the last 3,000 years.

It has killed tens of millions of people, swept uncontrollably across continents, changed the course of history many times. Half the people infected with the most virulent strain of smallpox died. Many survivors were left blind. Most carried ugly scars the rest of their lives. Even a milder strain killed one in every 10 victims. It is foolish and dangerous to waste ecological concerns about endangered species on smallpox.

Carrying out the planned execution of the virus would be the welcome, final act of a 200-year battle that began with the development of a vaccine in the 1790s. Vaccination greatly reduced the incidence of smallpox. But even in 1966, when the World Health Organization announced a plan to eradicate the disease completely, it was still infecting 10 to 15 million people a year.

With historic international cooperation, vaccination programs were intensified in countries where smallpox remained. Gradually, the number of cases diminished. Armies of WHO workers and epidemiologists from 50 countries braved the worst of Third World conditions to find remaining victims and prevent the disease from spreading further. A 3-year-old girl in Bangladesh had the last known case of the most virulent form of smallpox in 1975. A hospital cook in Somalia was the last recorded victim of a milder strain in 1977.

Now, the reservoirs of smallpox are deliberate human creations. In 1975, there were 75 laboratories around the world with stockpiles of frozen virus. Most of them complied with WHO requests to destroy the deadly organisms. The remaining caches were consolidated in Atlanta and Moscow after virus escaped from a lab in Birmingham, England, and spread through ventilating ducts to infect a woman working on the floor above. She died. Her mother recovered from a less severe attack. The lab director killed himself by slashing his throat with scissors.

Today, the last two frozen stockpiles are supposed to be heavily guarded -- at considerable cost to taxpayers. But no security system is fail-proof, especially in the unstable conditions in the former Soviet Union. Accidents can happen. Guards can be bribed. Smallpox virus could be a tempting target for terrorists or guerrillas or murderous zealots. (History is full of examples of smallpox being used deliberately to kill and weaken enemies, including European settlers purposely infecting Indian tribes.) Since smallpox vaccination programs have ended, hundreds of millions of people are no longer protected against the disease.

The triumphant end of a unique international effort is near. Nothing should be allowed to postpone it.

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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