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Bugs Without Borders

1.

The Reagan administration’s decisions to build the Trident submarine and the MX missile and to launch the Strategic Defense Initiative were based on considerations of “domestic politics, history and mythology” as much as they were on “reality—or the best intelligence estimates about it,” writes Frances FitzGerald in Way Out There in the Blue, her account of Reagan’s defense program.1 Today, Washington is deeply preoccupied with biological and chemical weapons, and the Bush administration is preparing to spend heavily on biological defense research. America’s leaders fear that the rogue states and terrorist groups that are now our adversaries would be more likely to use such weapons, because they are cheaper and easier to procure and deploy than nuclear warheads. In The Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston describes how US biodefense research can be seen as preparation for a new arms race, but he neglects to address the moral implications of this for the laboratories, the people who work in them, or for the American public in general. Nor is Preston as enlightening as Frances FitzGerald might be about whose interests this buildup actually serves.

In past centuries, epidemics of smallpox, plague, cholera, and other diseases killed millions of people in medieval market towns, colonial cities, and Victorian slums. It is unlikely that the germs that caused these diseases would kill as many people in industrialized nations such as the US, with modern health care, good nutrition, and adequate water and sanitation, but this is not an experiment we would want to carry out. Few twenty-first-century Americans know what an epidemic of smallpox or plague is like, but these diseases so ravaged our ancestors that we may carry the fear of them somewhere in our genes.

The Demon in the Freezer opens with a description of the early stages of the investigation into the anthrax attacks that killed five people in the fall of 2001. In October and November of that year, five envelopes containing highly purified, “weapons grade” anthrax arrived by mail at the headquarters of various newspapers and television news broadcasters as well as at the Washington offices of two liberal Democratic senators, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The envelopes contained letters that said “DEATH TO AMERICA/DEATH TO ISRAEL/ALLAH IS GREAT” and then, curiously, most warned the recipients to take antibiotics right away.

Preston describes the urgency and confusion with which government scientists first responded to the anthrax crisis. He also describes the horror that overcame some of the researchers when they imagined what would have happened if those letters had contained smallpox, which, unlike anthrax, can spread from person to person. To show how infectious smallpox can be, the scene in Demon shifts to a small hospital in the Sauerland region of Germany in 1970, where a young tourist, just returned from Pakistan, lies in quarantine, suffering from smallpox. One day his symptoms temporarily abate and, against the orders of the nurses, he opens the window of his room a few centimeters and smokes a cigarette. Within days, seventeen other people, including several nurses who had never even been in the same room with the young man, contract the disease from him. Scientists later discover that the smallpox virus emerging from a patient’s breath can creep out of a window and up the walls of a building, then back in another window, and infect people two floors above.

The Demon in the Freezer begins with the anthrax attacks, but most of the book deals with smallpox, which since the mid-1970s has existed only in freezers. The smallpox virus is the most terrifying of all the infectious substances that could be used as a weapon. Unlike anthrax or ebola, smallpox spreads easily. Unlike plague, there is no cure for it, and some strains kill 60 percent of their victims, and leave many others blind or disfigured. There is an effective vaccine against smallpox, but its side effects can be deadly for people with weak immune systems. In the 1970s an extensive global vaccination campaign coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) eliminated the smallpox virus from nature. But for years, scientists had been collecting samples of smallpox virus from the tissues of sick patients. Scientists used these smallpox stocks for research, for assigning types to virus strains, and for other benign purposes. When the smallpox eradication program came to an end in 1979, the WHO urged every country except the US and the Soviet Union to destroy its stocks of smallpox virus.

Today, only two declared stocks of smallpox remain on earth, one in a freezer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, and the other in a freezer at the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology7 near Novosibirsk. However, there are rumors that other countries may not have destroyed their stored smallpox stocks when the WHO told them to do so, and the CIA has recently asserted that Iraq, North Korea, and France probably retained frozen vials of smallpox which could be turned into weapons, and that Russia has secretly continued to “weaponize” its own smallpox stocks.[2]

Throughout the 1990s, scientists, ethicists, lawyers, philosophers, and even conservationists debated whether or not the United States and Russia should destroy their stocks of smallpox. Some experts, including Donald Henderson, the former head of the WHO Smallpox Eradication Campaign, argued that the stocks should be destroyed, since they had no scientific purpose that couldn’t be fulfilled by safer alternatives and their existence posed a threat to world security. In principle, a terrorist could steal the virus from the extremely secure freezers they are stored in, or a clumsy researcher could infect himself, and then spread the disease to others. Destroying the stocks would also reassure the world that the US and Russia honor the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention banning the development, production, and stockpiling of biological and chemical weapons. Countries that have ratified the convention are permitted to conduct research on drugs and vaccines against potential biological weapons, but they are not allowed to design or create germ weapons or build the delivery systems for such weapons.3

Henderson also argued that destroying the stocks would create moral clarity about one of the most dangerous substances the world has ever known. It would make the possession of smallpox absolutely illegal, and as the arms control expert David Koplow has written, it would make “the possessors… rogues, enemies of all people.”4 However, other scientists, including Peter Jahrling of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), believe that the smallpox stocks are useful for defensive research on drugs and vaccines, and in this dangerous, unstable world, there is no guarantee that we might not need them someday.5

2.

The Demon in the Freezer takes us to Frederick, Maryland, in 2001, where Peter Jahrling and his colleagues at USAMRIID are preparing to travel to Atlanta where they will try to infect a group of lab monkeys with the smallpox stored at the CDC. Under normal circumstances, monkeys do not contract smallpox, only human beings do. But when Jahrling et al. give the Atlanta monkeys an enormous dose of the germ, enough to kill literally millions of people five times the monkeys’ size, the monkeys do develop a disease very similar to human smallpox. Jahrling’s discovery that monkeys can contract smallpox and suffer and die from it just as human beings do is important because previously it was difficult to test new drugs and vaccines for the disease. The infected monkeys make such research easier, but they also make the decision to destroy the smallpox stocks more difficult, for Jahrling has shown that the smallpox stocks could be genuinely useful for research, even though he is still a long way from developing a cure or improved vaccine for the disease.

Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, called Jahrling an “idiot” in print, because his smallpox experiment could alarm the leaders of other nations who might wonder why the US is trying to make new cures and vaccines for smallpox. This could set off a biological arms race with other countries, just as anti-ballistic missile research could have exacerbated the nuclear arms race. Preston dispassionately records Jahrling’s grim satisfaction over the successful monkey experiment, and Sommer’s and Henderson’s concerns about it, but we never learn what Preston’s own opinion is.

Other worrying questions have been raised about US biodefense research, but Preston barely mentions them. While some scientists had misgivings about Jahrling’s monkey experiments, other activities underway in America’s biodefense labs come even closer to, if they do not exceed, the limits set by the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. On September 4, 2001, The New York Times reported that an Army lab was creating germ “bomblets” that could, in principle, be filled with smallpox and dropped over a city.6 Army researchers were also trying to erect makeshift germ warfare labs in the desert and they were developing plans to engineer more aggressive strains of anthrax that Russian scientists claimed to have developed already. Government officials told reporters that the purpose of all these apparently offensive research projects was to try to understand what our adversaries—Saddam Hussein, for example, or the Russians—might be capable of. However, some critics felt that the line between trying to recreate what a terrorist would do and actually doing what he would do was a very thin one indeed.

Three months after the Times article, The Baltimore Sun reported that for several years the US Army laboratory at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah had been working with the same strain of anthrax that went into those infamous letters in 2001, and had also been making powdered anthrax that was easily dispersible, like the anthrax in those letters.7 On page 204 of Demon, Preston claims, in parentheses, that the Dugway program did not produce anthrax “that was anywhere near as pure as the Daschle anthrax,” but he does not say how he knows this, and he does not quote a source. In fact, FBI and army spokesmen have refused to comment publicly on whether Dugway ever made anthrax similar to that in the letters.8

The Dugway anthrax program is important because the FBI has long suspected that the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks came from a US biodefense lab, and that a scientist, or more likely a group of scientists, who worked there may have sent it in the mail. If, as Preston asserts, Dugway never made anthrax similar to that in the letters, this would be extremely important for the American public to know. Since Preston only mentions it parenthetically, and since no other source will confirm it, we can only conclude that anthrax similar to that used in the attacks may well have been made at Dugway. Who did it and why is still a mystery, but many simple questions have not been answered, and some haven’t even been asked. In Demon, Preston discusses the FBI investigation of the anthrax attacks, but never draws the obvious conclusion that the nature of biodefense research is both morally ambiguous and potentially extremely dangerous.

  1. 1

    Simon and Schuster, 2000, p. 18.

  2. 3

    The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was signed at London, Moscow, and Washington on April 10, 1972, and entered into force on March 26, 1975.

  3. 4

    David Koplow, Smallpox: The Fight to Eradicate a Global Scourge (University of California Press, 2003), p. 168.

  4. 5

    For a more detailed discussion of the pros and cons of killing off the smallpox stocks, see David Koplow’s Smallpox.

  5. 6

    Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William J. Broad, “US Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits,” The New York Times September 4, 2001; and Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War (Simon and Schuster, 2001).

  6. 7

    See “Anthrax Matches Army Spores,” The Baltimore Sun, December 12, 2001.

  7. 8

    William Broad and Judith Miller, “U.S. Recently Produced Anthrax in a Highly Lethal Powder Form,” The New York Times, December 13, 2001; comment was refused by Paula Nicholson, Dugway Proving Ground, and Chris Murray, FBI, November 25, 2002.

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