Germ rights

Smallpox: the fight to eradicate a global scourge

David Koplow <em>University of California Press,

As a biologist, I have devoted my professional life to research aimed at countering the threat of infectious disease. So the prospect that I, and many people I know, may soon be queuing for an inoculation against smallpox is appalling. The threat, however, is real - the government is contemplating vaccinating health workers in preparation for a bioterrorist attack.

Smallpox was supposed to be the one we had beaten. The accidental side effects of human activity contribute to the irretrievable loss of 70 life forms on earth each day. All the concerted efforts of public health officials, however, can point only to the incarceration of the variola virus that causes smallpox as a success in their programmes of microbial eradication. Fears founded on the belief that variola stocks have fallen into iniquitous hands are fuel-ling the current policy on inoculation.

Since the events of 11 September 2001 and the ensuing anthrax scare in America, the smallpox story has been told frequently. Alexander the Great catapulted infectious corpses into besieged cities. The Greeks poisoned the wells of Troy. The British gave blankets that had been used to warm their own smallpox-infected troops as gifts to indigenous peoples in the nations they planned to colonise. Today, the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, fears biological weapons above all others. Smallpox is considered to be pre-eminent among the weaponisable microbes.

Officially two stocks of smallpox remain. These are at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia and the sinister-sounding Vector laborator- ies in Russia. Unofficially, as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine conceded when a vial of the virus emerged from a frozen recess there, other stocks are no doubt at large. Genuine concern that the virus has been obtained and stockpiled by terrorists and rogue states has grown inexorably in recent years. Throughout the cold war, the Americans and the Soviets periodically vaccinated their forces against smallpox, a practice that Israel maintains today.

This book concentrates on the fate of the official stocks only. The World Health Organisation has called for their destruction. Smallpox was a vile disease. It was caused by what Koplow describes as a kind of viral Hannibal Lecter, which is now incarcerated. The question is whether capital punishment of this incorrigible virus is morally justified.

Remarkably, Koplow proclaims rights for variola. We should, he thinks, be satisfied with the eradication of smallpox the disease without now pursuing the extermination of the variola virus. His clemency is based on two contradictory positions. The first is humanist: we don't yet know what benefits we might derive from the virus. Variola's closest cousin, vaccinia, the cowpox virus, proved to be of incalculable benefit to humankind as the basis of the vaccine against smallpox introduced by the English physician Edward Jenner in 1796. Genetic engineers now contemplate uses for variola, which has certain important attributes, such as the ability to invade human cells and deliver a genetic load for medical use.

Koplow's second argument is anti-humanist: What right do we humans have to eliminate any life form on earth? Variola would be the first whose extermination was premeditated by humans.

Who decides on the moral limits of extinguishing our foes? Few people today would advocate exterminating man- eating tigers. Snakes are held sacrosanct by most environmentalists. But what of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, or the malarial parasites themselves?

For Koplow, every scrap of biodiversity is priceless. He is, in many ways, ahead of his time. Human rights are not held in universal esteem and only a disaffected minority fights for animal rights. I find his position powerful but, when it comes to variola, a powerful humanist beast remains at large within myself. I believe that the final stocks of this virus should be destroyed without delay.