I 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.