TWN Info Service
on Health Issues (April 11/03)
Dear friends and colleagues,
RE: Smallpox Virus is not Needed to Respond to Alleged Unauthorized Stocks
Perhaps the most often repeated smallpox myth
to emerge in the last fifteen years is the notion that because alleged
unauthorized smallpox stocks may exist, then the remaining World Health
Organization (WHO) smallpox stocks stored in the
This informational briefing addresses the issue, and explains why, even if unauthorized stocks of smallpox exist - and there is no evidence to suggest that they do - smallpox virus is not needed to respond to that hypothetical problem.
Even if the allegations of unauthorized stocks can be substantiated with empirical evidence, it would still be unlikely that these create a compelling public health purpose for retaining the smallpox virus stocks nor is it likely to change the conclusion that the smallpox virus stocks should be destroyed.
The upcoming World Health Assembly (16-24 May, 2011) will be discussing the issue of smallpox destruction once again. More information can be found at www.smallpoxbiosafety.org
With best wishes,
Smallpox Infobrief #2
by Edward Hammond for the
smallpoxbiosafety.org, April 2011
Second in a series of short informational briefings
on the issue of destruction of smallpox virus stocks
Alleged Unauthorized Stocks and the Myth that Smallpox Virus is Needed to Respond to Them
Perhaps the most often repeated smallpox myth
to emerge in the last fifteen years is the notion that because the
In fact, even if unauthorized stocks of smallpox
exist – and there is no evidence to suggest that they do - smallpox
virus is not needed to respond to that hypothetical problem. Unless
Biological Warfare Prohibited
First, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention
prohibits the development and stockpiling of biological agents for the
purpose of war. The
Further, and equally importantly, the smallpox
stocks do not belong to
No Use in Outbreak Response
Some people assume, perhaps naturally but incorrectly, that smallpox stocks could be used to respond to a future smallpox outbreak, however unlikely the possibility. This is not true. This incorrect assumption may come about because vaccines are typically produced in a process utilizing the disease agent itself and people presume this is also the case with smallpox.
In fact, smallpox vaccine is produced from a related but less dangerous virus, vaccinia. Stocks of vaccinia are not controlled by the WHA and there are no plans to destroy them. There is no need for the smallpox virus in order to produce smallpox vaccine, and numerous existing vaccines based on vaccinia have already shown efficacy against the virus. These include the vaccines that were used to eradicate smallpox in the first place.
Similarly, many rapid and accurate smallpox diagnostic tests exist and these may be produced and used without smallpox virus. Nearly 50 smallpox genomes have been sequenced, providing ample genomic information for comparative and other health purposes. And smallpox virus is not needed to produce antiviral drugs whose use might supplement the primary public health containment technique of vaccination.
Finally, in the unlikely event of a future outbreak, if there were a renewed need for smallpox stocks for essential public health research purposes, new samples of the virus could be readily obtained from outbreak victims.
No Evidence for Unauthorized Stocks
It has become a divisive annual occurrence at
the WHA and elsewhere – especially in the media – that the
On the contrary, in the past decade, the
Deceptive Conflation with Bioterrorism Issues
The subject of alleged unauthorized smallpox stocks is also sometimes linked to bioterrorism by non-state actors. However, there has been no case of use of smallpox virus in what could be termed terrorism since the 18th Century. In that case, it was not the doing of a small group, rather, it was an attack by the British military against Native Americans.
Today, the practical hurdles for a ‘classical’ terrorist organization to obtain, store, and utilize smallpox as a weapon are extremely high. First, there is no natural reservoir of smallpox virus, so a virus sample would have to be obtained from a WHO Collaborating Centre or another (unproven) virus stock whose existence has evaded detection for nearly 30 years. A terrorist organization would also have to move and store the virus stock without causing a new outbreak (including killing themselves), because such an event would be quickly detected. Such an effort would require capacities and facilities that would be difficult to impossible to secretly acquire, operate and maintain, especially in a remote location.
Effective use of smallpox as a weapon is beyond the documented capability of any known terrorist organization and, in any event, it is unfortunately true that many more practical options to commit attacks exist for these groups to utilize.
To the extent that a capable bioterrorism threat
exists, persons with access to the WHA-authorized stocks arguably present
the greatest risk. Globally, the only major bioterrorism incidents that
have occurred this century were the 2001 anthrax letters in the
This year, pursuant to a court order, an expert panel concluded that directors at the lab, the United States military’s highest security biological research facility, did not properly vet laboratory staff, including failure to identify the perpetrator’s sociopathic mental illness (despite having access to relevant psychiatric records) and failure to identify and act upon incidents of “impaired behavior” at the lab, both before and after the attacks occurred.
Other researchers from this same
Argumentum ad Ignorantium – The Role of Allegation at the WHA
If there is no military or medical use for smallpox
stocks in a future outbreak, including in the unlikely and unsubstantiated
event that unauthorized stocks exist, then why does the
It does so because the argument may be accepted without proof by some and, more directly at the WHA, serves the tactical purpose of deflecting attention. The rhetorical strategy of relying on an assertion that cannot be disproved seeks to shift the burden of truth by placing Member States that favor destruction in the position of having to prove a negative (i.e. that unauthorized stocks do not exist).
Logicians would call this argumentum ad ignorantium, or argument from ignorance. It is a recognized type of logical fallacy and, borrowing the words of Bertrand Russell, the United States “should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense” so long as it relies on this argument.
Ironically, as this short brief has tried to demonstrate,
even if the
Linzer D 2003. No Evidence
Squassoni S 2006. Disarming
Associated Press 2002.
Associated Press 2004.
 Amerithrax Expert Behavioral Analysis Panel. 2011. Report of the Expert Behavioral Analysis Panel. Research Strategies Network. See URL: https://www.researchstrategiesnetwork.org/pages/view/Amerithrax/
To be balanced, comparatively little information is available about
conditions at the WHO Collaborating Centre at VECTOR in