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Smallpox still poses biowarfare threat

The New Straits Times, February 17, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

THE last smallpox epidemic was in 1977 in Somalia. This prompted the World Heath Organisation to declare that smallpox has seen the last of its days. The disease has been eradicated, and all stocks and vaccines are to be eliminated except in the so-called biowarfare laboratories.

To set the world free from such a deadly virus is no small feat. Small-pox is indeed one of the major killers whereby in less than two weeks after infection, symptoms like fever, aches and vomiting begin to appear. This is followed by painful pustules. In epidemics, the mortality rates can be between 30 and 40 per cent.

April 1999 was the deadline for all vestiges of the smallpox virus to be destroyed. The US, however, has extended the deadline to June this year citing "security purposes".

This decision was taken well before the Sept 11 incident. Now, many more countries are rethinking their position vis-a-vis smallpox, in particular, and biological agents in general. The Bush administration has decided to retain and stockpile the smallpox stocks and vaccine on hand, allegedly to help combat any re-emergence of the disease, especially via bioterrorism. Under the present circumstances, from the public health viewpoint at least, it is predictable that the potential release of smallpox could have a devastating effect.

Increasingly therefore, there is a need to focus research on "safe and effective immunisation of vulnerable sectors of certain populations" in anticipation of any possible attack.

Biological agents have always captured the human imagination as a kind of weapon that could cause mass devastation on the enemies, including the use of smallpox. In the 18th century, the British were guilty of using smallpox in a war against the North American natives by offering them "smallpox-infected" blankets.

Why then should the 20th century be any different? Now that smallpox has been eradicated, many would not even recognise its classic signs let alone how to treat it, making the overall impact even more deadly as treatments are invariably delayed, if not obscured.

The world witnessed a similar happening just two years ago in Russia. Reportedly, in June 2000, a group of children was found to be infected after playing with discarded containers of smallpox virus.

Although the children survived the ordeal, the doctors were said to be at a loss initially, partly resulting in the victims' faces being permanently scarred. With the spread of biotechnology and upsurge in terrorism, there is no discounting what the next biological weapon would be like.

A team of Australian scientists announced in January 2001 that it had unintentionally converted a mild mousepox into a killer virus by genetically manipulating it. The blueprint, as it were, is now laid bare to both researchers and bio-terrorists alike. As researchers (and bioterrorists) further understand the genetic structures of organisms, they can effectively change them into drug-resistant species.

This means treatment would be virtually impossible based on today's medical know-how. For viruses such as smallpox, where the viral stocks and vaccines are no longer readily available, the spread would be like wildfire.

It is not only biological weapons that are becoming more potent, some can be made more lethal to just specific groups of people, based on ethnicity for instance.

No special tools are needed to make biological agents. Currently, the technology is almost everywhere (including the Internet), hence living up to its name as "a poor man's nuclear weapon".

As one expert noted, "there's no control of the market in biological materials — that's the Achilles heel", making biological weapons more strategically insidious. 

Thus, by postponing the deadline to destroy strains of the smallpox virus and vaccines, there may be hope that work on a new and better vaccine can be readily found.

It remains an irony that by setting the world free from communicable diseases such as smallpox, we have actually made it a more dangerous place to live in.

Instead, such a monumental achievement has been regarded as a point of vulnerability for without vaccination against smallpox, every-one is virtually defenceless against the virus if and when it re-emerges.

Worse yet, no one is able tell for sure how vulnerable we are today to any form of biological warfare, thanks to those who first created this form of lunacy.

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