Sep 2, 2007

On Smallpox, Vaccines, and Conspiracy Theories

Smallpox victim, smallpox vaccine, return of smallpoxI usually avoid letting my thinking lapse into the realm of conspiracy theories, given the fact that conspiracies require many silent and loyal participants in order to be successful.

Besides, people tend to shy away from you at parties when you bring up topics like the return of smallpox.

Yet I read with more than a touch of alarm the news that a smallpox vaccine was granted FDA approval last week. Though the World Health Organization has certified the complete eradication of smallpox from nature, samples of the virus were saved by Russian and American laboratories. There is some speculation that Iraq may have obtained smallpox virus from the Russians in the early 1990s, raising the possibility of its use as a terror weapon in the post-Saddam era.

Smallpox scabs were found in 2003 in an envelope tucked in a book in a New Mexico university library. This unusual finding increased speculation that live smallpox virus might be derived from alternative sources, such as graves or abandoned research laboratories.

The new smallpox vaccine is being produced by UK-based Acambis plc, a pharmaceutical company with facilities in Cambridge, MA and and Cambridge, England. In the post-9/11 terror frenzy, Acambis won contracts to supply the American government with smallpox vaccine for its stockpile. Acambis, which was formerly known as Peptide Therapeutics until a name change in 2000, moved away from more commercial pharmaceutical work in the late 1990s in favor of research into vaccines.

Acambis has received at least $450 million in contracts with the U.S. government, which is the largest single amount of funding ever allotted in this sector of the pharmaceutical industry. Clearly there are people in the U.S. government who are worried about the threat of a return of smallpox.

Is this just prudence on the part of the American government, or is there greater justification for this preparation for a smallpox epidemic? It would be easy to write this fear off as terror paranoia, but there continues to be governmental chatter about smallpox. In particular, government and research officials recently criticized the Department of Homeland Security for shortcomings in the nation's biological surveillance systems.

As far as conspiracies go, the principle of Occam's razor is useful. Simply put, Occam argued that with all factors being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the correct one. In this case, the simplest solution is that there is undisclosed evidence that smallpox has fallen into the possession of hands other than American and Russian, and that the heightened smallpox activity reflects knowledgeable parties acting in a rational fashion.

As someone who was among the last Americans vaccinated against smallpox - I received my shot in 1970 as a kindergartner - I might still have some immunity to Variola major, assuming that any strains that reappear share relation to the strain against which I was immunized. My children, however, will have no immunity whatsoever to smallpox, should it return in epidemic form. With a mortality rate between 30 and 50 percent in immunologically naïve populations, a return of smallpox would be a disaster almost beyond comprehension.

But heck - I'm just a Midwestern rube with little better than a yeoman's grasp of epidemiology, and with an admitted tendency to look for hidden patterns where none might exist. Nothing to see here, folks: move along, and have a nice day.


Anonymous said...

Dink the Koolaid, Mikey, and things will be better.


Anonymous said...


I ken spel.


historymike said...

(takes proffered glass)

Ah. Much better.

historymike said...

(hands JD a dictionary)

Anonymous said...

Uh, about that find in the book at the library: Who recognized the scabs for what they were? And if they didn't recogize them, how they find out what they were?

historymike said...

From the USA Today article:

The biological material was found 31 March 2003 by "librarian Susanne Caro in an 1888 book on Civil War medicine at the College of Santa Fe's Fogelson Library. An inscription on the envelope reading, "scabs from vaccination of W.B. Yarrington's children," was signed by Dr. W.D. Kelly, the book's author."

historymike said...

Here's a lengthier article on the smallpox scabs found at College of Santa Fe's Fogelson Library.

Togakure Ryu said...

Gee, let me guess... "historymike" is a jew? Just look at these blog topics (disease, homosexuality, sports-which they bet on, black nations, degeneracy, etc).
Now, i'm by no means a white supremacist, but have to admit, they do make some good points in what they infer about jews.
WTF is historic about this garbage?!?!?

Togakure Ryu said...

I do like the Portuguese Empire entry though - need more of those. Stay on topic!

The Screaming Nutcase said...

I'm surprised he came up with "Jew" given that so few of your posts are about money, Mike. :)

historymike said...

Togakure Ryu said:

...i'm by no means a white supremacist...

No, you're just an anti-Semitic putz.

...Just look at these blog topics (disease, homosexuality, sports-which they bet on, black nations, degeneracy...

The present day has no monopoly on any of these items, nor does the past, and my intellectual curiosity extends to areas far removed from formal history.

... WTF is historic about this garbage?

Everything... and nothing. This is not exclusively a history blog; read the header again.

historymike said...

Screaming Nutcase:

Yes, I attract quite a few of the neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and Joo-hatin' crowd.

I think I will pose in a picture with a yarmulke just to give the anti-Semites a woody.

historymike said...

Picture of "HistoryKike" just for my neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic trolls who assume I am Jewish because my last name is Brooks, like Mel Brooks.

I'm actually Catholic, but I do know a few cool Jews. I'll bet it's contagious, right?


microdot said...

I for the life of me cannot figure out what Mr. Ryu is talking about and I'm pretty sure he doesn't either.

Togakure Ryu said...

AHAHAHAHAH! At least you have a sense of humor! Nice!

Togakure Ryu said...

re: "microdot said...", That is because you dropped too many "microdots" in the 60's and it's fried your brain.

microdot said...

How could an anonymous drive semi coherent attempt at lame sarcasm have any meaning or effect?
Obviously, mere mental dandruff.

Barb said...

better safe than sorry--I suspect we should all be vaccinated --again in the case of Baby Boomers.

I appreciate that somebody out there in our gov't is concerned and vigilant --I hope.

I don't know how we can guarantee that viruses are really gone --globally and forever.

historymike said...

Welcome to readers of "World Conspiracy Theories".