The Demon in the Freezer
September 30, 2002 1:57 AM   Subscribe

The Demon in the Freezer An article by the author of The Hot Zone. " The water contained the whole molecules of life from variola, a parasite that had colonized us thousands of years ago. We had almost freed ourselves of it, but we found we had developed a strong affinity for smallpox. Some of us had made it into a weapon, and now we couldn't get rid of it. I wondered if we ever would, for the story of our entanglement with smallpox is not yet ended".
posted by Mack Twain (10 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
good lord. can i have my ignorace back?
posted by brigita at 9:21 AM on September 30, 2002

That's from 1999, of course.

As it happens, the NIH reports today that diluted vaccine stocks will cover the entire US population with limited immunity, in case of an uncontained outbreak such as might happen in a bioterror attack. (Ironically, and oddly, there was an undocumented store of 25-year-old vaccine in Pennsylvania -- dating to the era of regular vaccinations -- amounting to 86 million full doses.) And though immunity does "wear off" there is little certainty of how resistant individuals are years after being vaccinated.

I've long been an advocate for retaining samples. The possibilities that disturb me are the destruction of smallpox knowledge by responsible authorities and its retention by irresponsible ones we don't know about -- and the variability of life, and biological imperatives, which seem to invite another pox cousin to at some point take the place we have so carefully vacated.

I was disappointed that ER used "smallpox" as a scare in its season finale; in last week's premiere that followed on from that story, it was revealed instead as a variety of monkeypox (although it involved lemurs in the Congo, so fact-checking wasn't exactly the writers' strong suit), which is reasonable. But I feel they munged a teachable moment, as it's called, by using the virus as little more than a cheesy plot hook.
posted by dhartung at 9:24 AM on September 30, 2002

Phew! Quite a long article with a great deal of information...who knew there was penguinpox? But the main thrust of the article is horribly ironic: that the eradication of smallpox-- one of the greatest achievements of mankind-- allows the virus to be turned into a weapon of mass destruction.

Still, we can only hope that in 40 years we will be laughing at the thought of smallpox being used as a bioterrorist weapon, much in the same way we look back to the 60's and smile ruefully at the thought of all of those schoolchildren hiding under their desks, rehearsing for the nuclear bombs which never came.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:25 AM on September 30, 2002

I dunno about you, Secret Life, but given the possibility (however remote) of nuclear terrorism, I'm not quite ready to smile ruefully yet.
posted by alumshubby at 10:17 AM on September 30, 2002

I remember reading that article when it was first published in the New Yorker in '99. And being horrified, and terrified. And now...

(Those interested in plagues, both natural and man-made, should check out "Plagues and peoples," a classic study on the topic. I'm reading it now.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:22 AM on September 30, 2002

That's it, I'm not leaving the house.
posted by eddydamascene at 11:51 AM on September 30, 2002

The real question is, do we have the ability to make more vaccine yet? It seems that eventually the vaccine we already have will expire. It's not like the stuff lasts forever.
posted by zanpo at 12:23 PM on September 30, 2002

Thoughtful and timely post, Mack Twain, as is the most apropo, informative and by now de rigueur dhartung comment on the same--where would we be without him? is a question that works on so many levels, is it not?
posted by y2karl at 1:01 PM on September 30, 2002

I dunno about you, Secret Life, but given the possibility (however remote) of nuclear terrorism, I'm not quite ready to smile ruefully yet.

Ah, the rueful smile....that was more a case of laughing hollowly at the thought that our wooden desks would protect us from a nuclear bomb. All that useless practice for a situation that never arose.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:14 PM on September 30, 2002

"Luckily, Yugoslavia had an authoritarian Communist government"

... there's a phrase you don't see to often. Could lack of political will be as devistating as any medical short coming in dealing with a biowar incident.
posted by adamt at 10:30 PM on September 30, 2002

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