Fear of airborne smallpox is behind push to vaccinate

Warning of scientist echoed by health officials

As previously reported in Bioterrorism Watch, top government health officials are pushing mass smallpox vaccinations in the health care system because they fear that Iraq possesses smallpox virus with "bioengineered . . . transmission" characteristics.

A top U.S. bioweapons scientist told BW last year that the former Soviet Union developed a method to spread a vaccine-resistant strain of the deadly virus through the air over large areas. Iraq and other rogue governments and terrorist groups may possess the technology, warned Alan P. Zelicoff, MD, senior scientist in the Center for National Security and Arms Control at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM. (See BW, September/October 2002, p. 9.) Raising the specter of airborne smallpox dashes most contingency plans for controlling an outbreak, which typically assume the virus would spread by conventional person-to-person transmission.

While some dismissed the warning as unfounded, top public health officials appear to share the same concern in a recent conference call with Michael Tapper, MD, president of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA). Here is a summary of the discussion that was posted on the SHEA web site:

"Dr. Michael Tapper, SHEA president, represented SHEA on a conference call on March 7 with Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, undersecretary Jerome Hauer, and Julie Gerberding, MD, director of CDC. The call was organized on short notice to request support from health care organizations for increased voluntary participation in the first phase of the smallpox vaccine program. Thompson expressed his concern about the relatively poor acceptance to date of the voluntary smallpox immunization by health care workers. He cited concerns about the possibility of imminent military activity in the Middle East and suggested that the U.S. government strongly suspected that the Iraqi government had access to smallpox, perhaps bioengineered. Gerberding emphasized that the issue of bioengineered smallpox more likely applied to its virulence or transmission characteristics and not to the utility of the current smallpox vaccine."

Though Zelicoff’s analysis of a formerly secret Soviet report has elements of speculation, he made a provocative argument that a 1971 smallpox outbreak in the city of Aralsk can be traced to airborne smallpox experiments on the island of Vozrozhdeniye in the Aral Sea. The outbreak was never officially reported to the outside world by the Soviet government. Though ascribing it to natural causes in its internal medical report, the former Soviet Union suppressed reports of the outbreak to protect the secrecy of its bioweapons research program on the island, he noted.

Zelicoff reviewed the official Soviet report and interviewed some of the outbreak survivors, including the index case. Now 54 years old, she was a fisheries biologist on a ship that sailed near the island of Vozrozhdeniye in July 1971 to conduct research on the declining marine environment in the Aral Sea. Though she had been immunized against smallpox and the ship was some 15 km from the island, the biologist developed smallpox and subsequently spread it to nine others on her return to the mainland.