Imagine if there were only two nuclear weapons left on earth. You have one, I have one. All the other nuclear bombs and missiles have long since been dismantled, destroyed...eradicated. Can you picture the scene? Just two bombs away from being nuclear weapons free.
While you and I could easily dismantle the last two remaining bombs and rid the planet of the threat, we don't. Instead you and I claim that more study must be done. There's more to learn about nuclear bombs we say.
Now imagine that the threat is not the last two remaining nuclear weapons, but the last two remaining stockpiles of a virus so lethal that, if it should escape its container, could devastate the human race.
It's in our hands to remove the threat...and we're not going to do it. It seems that Smallpox is getting a stay of execution. Again.
Since 1986 the Wold Health Organization (WHO) has been arguing about the destruction of the last two remaining stockpiles of Smallpox, otherwise known as variola. Destruction of these virus reserves would mean the removal of the treat of this virus on our planet. The decision to destroy the remaining samples has been pushed back for further discussion until 2014. A target date for destruction set for 2016.
Smallpox exists today at the CDC in the United States (frozen in nitrogen and under heavy guard) and in Russia (under similar circumstances, we hope). They're safe. They're secure. That's what the Japanese thought about their nuclear power plants before an Earthquake of historical magnitude redefined disaster.
Smallpox could easily redefine disaster for Planet Earth...
"What would happen if an Earthquake or other natural disaster of historic proportion struck the CDC in Atlanta? How safe would those Smallpox samples be?"
Smallpox has been around for over 3,000 years and was removed from nature by the efforts of science and vaccination. Today, it is that same claim of science that is keeping the stockpiles in the United States and Russia from being destroyed. The claim is that we have more research to do. See Biological Events: Smallpox (Mitigation Journal, Dec. 15, 2010). You can hear my commentary on Mitigation Journal Podcast #191 Smallpox get stay of execution.
I'm not buying it.
We've been researching Smallpox for over forty-years. The virus has 49 identified strains, the genome is known, and we have a vaccine developed. What more study do we need to do? The United States and Russia claim that we need more research to build new antivirals, create new vaccine. Create new vaccine by 20114? We can't keep routine medications in stock today! What makes you think we'll come up with a new Smallpox vaccine?
How much more are we going to learn about Smallpox between now and 2014?
We have all the data we need.
The Smallpox virus has been responsible for an estimated 3.5 million deaths in the 20th centurry. The death rate from the virus is about 30% (depending on the form) and surviving the pain of having Smallpox means permanent disfigurement. In today's terms, the deaths would be even greater because of the vulnerability of our society and the greater number of people living with compromised immune systems or co-morbid conditions. Worse still, we're a society of anxiety, not preparedness.
We humans have no protection from this virus. In the United States, we discontinued routine vaccination against Smallpox in the late 1970's. Those who were vaccinated may have little protection against the virus today. Those not vaccinated have no protection. In my Maintaining a Culture of Preparedness program, I tell people that one case of Smallpox (anywhere on the planet) is a global health emergency. I usually tell attendees that after I've asked: where do we see smallpox today?...the answer, by the way, is usually given as some third-world country. As responders, we still have a lot of learning to do about this virus and the potential impact. While there are many diseases that give us a concerning rash, none are more deadly than Smallpox.
Destroy the Smallpox virus. The threat is not terrorism...it is our own complacency. Destroy the threat.