the smallpox virus
is stored legally in only two places: a Russian government
laboratory in Siberia and a maximum containment lab at
the Atlanta headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC).
the possibility of this horrific parasite,
eradicated in its natural form twenty-five years ago,
resurfacing as a weapon of war or bioterrorism is very
real, said author Richard Preston, speaking at the Woodruff
Health Sciences Center as part of the Vaccine Dinner Cluba
lecture series that brings together scientists from Emory,
the CDC, and the University of Georgia to hear about the
latest advances in vaccine research. In his latest best-seller,
The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story, Preston
asserts that a number of countries, including Iraq, Iran,
and North Korea, are suspected by United States intelligence
agencies of keeping clandestine stocks of smallpox for
use as a weapon.
as a species, are at the verge of controlling nature in
a new way, he said. Biologists are in the
position of nuclear physicists in the late 1930s.
atomic bombs, however, which must be built and deployed,
biological weapons present a terrifying new twist: a virus
is primed to survive through rapid proliferation and jumping
from host to host. Plutonium doesnt know how
to make copies of itself, Preston said. But
smallpox is alive.
discontinuing routine smallpox vaccinations in 1972, the
government now finds itself manufacturing millions of
doses of the vaccine and debating whether to launch a
mass smallpox vaccination campaign. To keep ourselves
safe from smallpox, he said, we must now take
it out of the freezer, thaw it . . . awaken it.
even a vaccination doesnt guarantee protection,
Preston added, since it is designed to work against the
natural form of the viruswhich jumped from animals
to humans about ten thousand years agoand not a
biologically engineered strain.
who has a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton,
has written two previous best-sellers: The Hot Zone,
a look at the deadly Ebola virus, and The Cobra Event,
a fictional account of bioterror unleashed on America.
a nod to the scientists and military personnel in the
audience, Preston says he is not a doomsayer. We
are protected by people who know what theyre doing.
The CDC is an incredible asset for the U.S., for public
health, for the world as a whole. These are clever people,
able to think outside the box and try new things.
enough, one hopes, to outsmart a demon.M.J.L.
Vaccine Dinner Club is a lecture series bringing together
scientists from Emory, the CDC, and the University of
Georgia to hear about the latest advances in vaccine research.
To find out more, go to www.sph.emory.edu/CFAR/VACCINE.