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Last Updated

13 Jan 2003

Source: Baltimore Sun, March 2, 2002.

Smallpox is big threat

Dr. Alfred Sommer's broadside condemning medical research using the smallpox virus is as unfortunate as it is scientifically incorrect ("Giving smallpox to monkeys might unleash deadly disease," letters, Feb. 2).

Dr. Sommer asserts that smallpox exists in only two laboratories, and suggests that, because we have an effective vaccine, we don't need to do anything else to deal with the possibility of an outbreak.

But at least three scientists who worked in the illegal Soviet bioweapons research program have independently testified that smallpox was made in huge quantities through the 1980s.

The whereabouts of that material is now unknown. And North Korea, which received Soviet biological weapons technology, continues to vaccinate its soldiers against smallpox.

There is only one way to interpret this: Weaponized smallpox virus exists outside of the official collections at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and in Novosibirsk, Russia.

And are we as prepared to deal with a smallpox outbreak as Dr. Sommer suggests? Hardly.

Even given an adequate supply of vaccine, we know that a substantial percentage of our population - the very young, cancer patients, even people with common skin eczema - cannot tolerate it.

Meanwhile, Dr. Peter Jahrling and colleagues have made important breakthroughs in just two years: the discovery of new medications and proof that certain monkeys are susceptible to smallpox. In these animals, drugs and novel vaccines can be tried.

All this work has been reviewed and approved by a committee of the World Health Organization.

With the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction continuing in Iraq and elsewhere, and anthrax attacks no longer the stuff of fiction, it is tragic that the threat smallpox poses to public health is ignored by the discipline's very practitioners.

The rest of us need not pay the price for their folly.

Dr. Alan P. Zelicoff
Albuquerque, N.M.
The writer is senior scientist at the Center for National Security and Arms Control of the Sandia National Laboratories.