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Several years ago, shortly after the United Nation's World Health Organization declared victory over smallpox, the smallpox virus continued to exist in only two locations: a lab at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and a lab under Soviet control in Siberia. A strange debate began, involving both government leaders and scientists. Should those two remaining virus specimens be destroyed?
Many argued "yes". Ridding the world of this scourge would protect all humanity. Others argued "no". Mankind should not intentionally make a life-form extinct, and there might be some future benefit in being able to study the virus. Note that the smallpox virus was not needed for manufacturing vaccine; related pox viruses that do not naturally infect humans are used for that.
Those who argued against destroying the last smallpox viruses prevailed. (Some suspect that military concerns — a desire to use smallpox as a weapon — covertly aided the argument against extinction.) Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists and the Russians cannot be sure that their virus specimens are all secure, the whole world is a risk of a smallpox attack by terrorists.
When Bill Clinton was President, he proposed a national registry of bacteria and viruses. A database would contain information regarding which laboratories — university, corporate, government, et cetera — held specimens of which microbes. The database would even include information about the gene patterns of the microbes so that different strains could be distinguished and so that we could know from where each strain came.
The Republicans already controlled Congress and rejected President Clinton's plan. They claimed it would create too great a burden on commercial research labs. Today, the FBI has no clue where the mailed anthrax was produced.
In 1972, the nations of the world agreed to a treaty prohibiting germ warfare. In May of this year, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan persuaded a large number of nations to join together to strengthen that treaty. These nations approved a clause that would provide for surprise inspections of facilities to ensure that biological weapons were not being manufactured.
The one significant opponent of strengthening the treaty was the United States. Lobbyists for the drug manufacturers convinced President Bush to oppose the clause because it would put confidential business information at risk. Convincing Bush was easy since he was already inclined against anything that appeared to be related to arms control. The opposition of the U.S. was sufficient to kill the strengthening clause.
After business interests were given a priority ahead of public safety, the first victim to die of anthrax was an employee of a private business.
So now we see three missed opportunities. In one case, misguided (or duped) ethical concerns for a microscopic particle of protein were far more important than the safety of the human race. Yes, this was a life and death situation — the life of a virus and the possible death of people. In two other cases, Republican politics placed the petty needs of private business above the lives of the people of our nation.
How many other opportunities to protect people from germ warfare have we missed? How many safety measures have been stopped by ethical concerns or by twisted political philosophies?
And now for a lighter note, consider the advice from the U.S. Postal Service. Suggestions for detecting potentially harmful mail have been distributed in various forms. These are combined below [with my comments Italicized in brackets]:
"What should make me suspect a piece of mail?"
[Printed on a large postal card from the U.S. Postal Service.]
Just remember, neither anthrax nor smallpox can be spread by E-mail.
6 November 2001
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