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Smallpox threat may reemerge

Published Jun 11, 2005 5:14 PM

This May a real international smallpox threat emerged. The capitalist media has been silent about it. This contrasts with the time before the invasion of Iraq, when the Bush administration spread rumors that Iraq might be storing smallpox virus as one of the so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). As with the other WMD, the smallpox story was a total lie.

The campaign in early 2003 to vaccinate medical caregivers, who are first-responders, as a response to the alleged smallpox threat was also a fraud. This campaign led to the deaths of at least four health professionals from side-effects of the vaccine.

In late May in Geneva, Switzerland, the 58th World Health Assembly, representative body of the World Health Organi za tion (WHO), was asked by U.S. representatives to change WHO’s rules governing smallpox virus. The rule changes would allow expanded research with the extremely dangerous virus.

For centuries, smallpox had been one of the most deadly diseases. It killed hundreds of millions of people around the world. Although a vaccine made from cow pox (the word vaccine comes from vacca—Latin for cow) was introduced in 1796, for over 150 years routine vaccination was limited to the wealthier countries. As many as 300 million people died from smallpox in the 20th century until the final eradication.

The very last human cases were in 1978 when the virus escaped from a hospital laboratory in Britain and infected a photographer working in a nearby room. The photographer also infected her parents.

After that incident, WHO passed a resolution to kill all remaining stocks of the virus except for samples that would be kept in laboratory freezers in the U.S. and the USSR.

Pentagon objects

By the 1990s the remaining stocks were supposed to be destroyed as well, but the U.S. and particularly the Pentagon objected, claiming the virus was needed to study how to protect people in the unlikely event that some unknown smallpox virus still existed.

The argument was absurd, because smallpox vaccine is made from cowpox, not smallpox. If by some chance the virus had survived and infected someone, that infection could provide samples if research was needed.

Nonetheless, the WHO was powerless to overcome the Pentagon’s objections, and the 1999 destruction date was postponed to 2002. The U.S. government used the excuse of 9/11 and the anthrax outbreak that came soon after—which has since been traced to U.S. military labs—to again put off destruction and to petition for an expansion of research.

In fact, U.S. researchers had already secretly created a hybrid virus combining smallpox with other animal pox viruses, including rabbitpox and cowpox.

The rule changes recently requested would allow researchers to carry out genetic modification of smallpox and allow virus samples to be distributed to more laboratories. Genetic modification would mean taking genes from smallpox virus and inserting them in other viruses or vice-versa, an expansion of the hybridization that had already been secretly done.

Natural smallpox already killed about one-third of those people infected. The modification process could lead to either a more deadly virus or a virus that could spread even more readily and that could also be carried by other animals.

That smallpox was limited to infecting humans made it possible to eradicate the disease. If animal hosts could carry it, it would be almost impossible to fully contain it.

Rule changes pose terrible dangers

Such rule changes would pose two terrible dangers.

First, it would give the U.S. military—which, through its Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (AMRIID), controls the research—an opportunity to develop a new, deadlier bio-weapon.

Second, taking the virus out of the freezer and sharing it with more laboratories increases the risk of accidental release. If a genetically modified version gets released, current vaccines might not be effective to stop it.

Under pressure from other countries in the WHO, rule changes about genetic modi fications were rejected. But ominously, the WHO leadership, under tremendous U.S. pressure, has not ruled out the possibility of allowing more research. The door has been left open which could lead to a smallpox virus escape.

There was never a danger of smallpox from Iraq. Now that it’s clear that there is a very real danger coming from the Army’s biological weapons laboratories in Ft. Detrick, Md., the silence from the big business media is deafening.

Doctor of Public Health Hillel Cohen has written extensively critiquing the government’s bioterrorism preparedness programs. He thanks the Third World Network and the Sunshine Project for the research material used in this article.