D.A. Henderson, M.D., M.P.H.

Founding Director:      The Johns Hopkins University, Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies

DA Henderson DA Henderson
Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense

Dr. Donald A. Henderson Is it Safe to
Save a Microbe?

Dr. Donald A. Henderson explains the issues surrounding the smallpox virus debate. (ABCNEWS)

  The Smallpox Dilemma
"In recent meetings with national and local hospital authorities, current capabilities of the medial system in the US to deal with sudden surges in demand such as might follow release of a biological weapon were explored. Such a release would result in an epidemic that would stress the system not unlike the way it would be stressed by a pandemic of severe influenza. From these meetings, it is evident that the elasticity of the nation's bed supply has been significantly reduced as drives for financial efficiency and the increasing use of out-patient procedures have sharply reduced the numbers of beds in all hostpitals... Few have either the resources or motivation to prepare to respond to the challenges posed by mass casualties due to any cause."

(International Symposium on Respitory Viral Infections )   - 03 Dec 2000

" A bioterrorist event presents an entirely different scenario, one that is alien to civil authorities. Epidemics of serious diseases such as are anticipated are wholly unknown to American cities. Unlike an explosive or chemical event, the bioweapons release would be silent and almost certainly undetected. The aerosol cloud would be invisible, odorless and tasteless. It would behave much like a gas in penetrating interior areas. No one would know until days or weeks later that anyone had been infected."

(Testimony Delivered to the Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services )   - 16 Mar 1999

“We are ill-prepared to deal with a terrorist attack that employs biological weapons. In countering civilian terrorism, the focus has almost wholly been on chemical and explosive weapons. A chemical release or a major explosion is far more manageable than the biological challenges posed by smallpox or anthrax… The specter of biological weapons use is an ugly one, every bit as grim and foreboding as that of a nuclear winter.”

(Taken from “Bioterrorism as a Public Health Threat”, Emerging Infectious Diseases )   - 01 Sep 1998

"How widely and quickly should… vaccine be used? Were vaccine to be limited strictly to close contacts of confirmed cases, comparatively few doses would be needed. However, the realities of dealing with even a small epidemic would almost certainly preclude such a cautious, measured vaccination effort. Vaccine researves would rapidly disappear, and there is, at present, not manufacturing capacity to produce additional vaccine. If an emergency effort were made to produce new stocks of smallpox vaccine, many months to a year or more would be required."

(Emerging Infectious Diseases, "Bioterrorism as a Public Health Threat" )   - 01 Jul 1998

"In the longer term, we need to be as prepared to detect, diagnose, characterize epidemiologically, and respond appropriately to biological weapons use as to the threat of new and reemerging infections. In fact, the needs are convergent. We need at international, state, and local levels a greater capacity for surveillance; a far better network of laboratories and better diagnostic instruments; and a more adequate cadre of trained epidemiologists, clinicians, and researchers."

(Emerging Infectious Diseases, "Bioterrorism as a Public Health Threat" )   - 01 Jul 1998


"Specialists in infectious diseases thus constitute the front line of defense. The rapidity with which they and emergency room personnel reach a proper diagnosis and the speed with which they apply preventive and therapeutic measures could spell the difference between thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of casualties. Indeed, the survival of physicians and health-care staff caring for the patients may be at stake. However, today few have ever seen so much as a single case of smallpox, plague, or anthrax, or, for that matter, would recall the characteristics of such cases."

(Emerging Infectious Diseases, "Bioterrorism as a Public Health Threat" )   - 01 Jul 1998

  W A S H I N G T O N,  March 19 — Should the last known samples of the smallpox virus be destroyed? Should the killer microbes be preserved for medical research? Or, should the vials of virus be locked away in case a future enemy develops it into a biological weapon?

      Those are the questions at the heart of a scientific and national-security debate that’s reached the highest levels of the U.S. government. Officials are concerned that, 20 years after smallpox was eradicated, the virus could resurface as a weapon of terror.

     “One does not wish to think in terms of having that virus return,” says epidemiologist Donald A. Henderson, chief of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian BioDefense Studies. “I think it would be an absolute catastrophe.”

     Officials are most concerned that Russia has secretly stored samples of the deadly virus, possibly for use as a biological weapon.

     Nearly two years ago, the World Health Organization recommended incinerating all known stocks of smallpox virus, which were supposed to be collected and consolidated in two places: a remote Russian biological warfare lab in Siberia known as “Vector,” and in a highly-secure storage facility at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

     But, says Henderson, officials have since learned that at least two other centers in Russia have the smallpox virus.

     “So the question is now, do we still proceed ahead to request that all stocks of virus be destroyed or not?”


Experts Weigh Pros and Cons

     Incineration of the remaining stocks of smallpox virus is scheduled for June 30. The plan is supposed to undergo a final review at a meeting in May of the 190 members of the WHO’s World Health Assembly in Geneva.

     At an executive committee meeting last January, U.S. representatives said they planned to vote for the virus’ incineration. The Russians opposed destroying their stocks of smallpox.

     Amy Smithson, director of the chemical and biological weapons project at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, has no doubts about what the U.S. should do: Maintain its small stock of live virus.

     “If you know anything about Soviet military strategy, when they do anything, they do it big,” she told ABCNEWS.com. “There is a strong possibility that they produced huge amounts of smallpox vaccine.”


Destroy the Virus Stockpile

     Henderson is one of a chorus of scientists who believes the known virus stocks in Russia and the United States should be incinerated.

     “The issue is,” Henderson told ABCNEWS, “if you do destroy it in the known laboratories and you ask all countries to put the pressure on, are you in some way going to minimize the risk of smallpox virus being used as a bio-terrorist weapon? And there are some of us, and I am one of them, who feel that this would be beneficial. That way we could minimize the risk of having smallpox used again or let it be loose again” by destroying the known stocks.

     Is it really possible to verify if the Russians actually destroyed their virus? Quoting former President Ronald Reagan, Amy Smithson says, “trust, then verify.” Henderson says that trust is easier than verification, since with biological weapons, it’s “very, very difficult to know whether they are there.”

     Still, Henderson does not believe the United States should retain any samples of the virus. He says we don’t need it for research purposes and “it is of no consequence to national security, unless we wanted to contemplate using the virus itself as a bio-weapon. I do not think we would do that.”

Investigative reporter Howard L. Rosenberg is a producer for ABCNEWS’ 20/20, an author and writer for numerous newspapers and magazines.



History of Smallpox

     The smallpox virus can be spread from person to person. Once infected, a victim usually suffers a fever and rash that begins as small bumps and grows into pus-filled scabs.

     After a global vaccination program that lasted nearly two decades, smallpox was officially declared eradicated in 1980. The last known case of the disease, characterized by disfiguring facial pustules was recorded in Great Britain in 1978.

     Ironically, it is because smallpox no longer exists around the world that it is such a potentially lethal biological weapon. Unlike its viral cousins, chickenpox or cowpox, smallpox is lethal to upwards of 25-30 percent of those infected. In an unexposed population — which is now the world — it could spread like deadly wildfire.

     Smallpox has long been recognized as a particularly potent biological weapon. The Spanish Conquistadores, spread smallpox among native tribes in what is now Mexico and Central America, wiping out entire civilizations.

     And what if the Russians or some other rogue nation developed a vaccine-resistant, genetically-engineered version of the smallpox virus? Medical experts agree that such a strain could be sequenced for its genetic make-up, and a vaccine developed to counter it. Smallpox vaccine can be produced without live smallpox virus.




Threat of Bioterrorism

Smallpox Virus Destruction

Meeting of the WHO Variola Research Committee

The Research Agenda Utilizing Variola Virus:
A Public Health Perspective

Biodefense Quarterly, June 1999

Risk of a Deliberate Release of Smallpox Virus;
Its Impact on Virus Destruction

Deliberations Regarding the Destruction of Smallpox Virus: A Historical Review, 1980-1998

Confronting Biological Weapons: a special section in Clinical Infectious Diseases

Smallpox as a Biological Weapon

Bioterrorism and the People: How to Vaccinate a City against Panic



 Use your   Back Browser Button   to return to previous page 

 Back to Main Page