Scientific prudence leaves us no other choice.
Many people seek to save the whales, save the wolves, save the cuddly polar bears that look simply adorable from a distance of a half-continent away (where they cannot reach your throat), and some even seek to save California’s Delta Smelt which seem almost worthless until you stop and consider how much farmland they can turn into desert. In justifying protection measures for these creatures, politicians appeal to our desire to pass the splendor and diversity of Creation on to future generations while scientists cite the value of every species for future research — every species, that is, but one.
Perhaps it’s because it lacks the white fur of the polar bear, the noble eyes of the wolf, or even the pathetic helplessness of the Delta Smelt, but somehow the smallpox virus has yet to enjoy protected status. True, even the razor claws and teeth of a polar bear look cute on a cub, while the offspring of smallpox tend to be painful, puss-filled, scarring hives and hideous death, none of which would sell well on a poster. But since when did adorable offspring become a necessary prerequisite for protection? Though it has yet to set a timeline, just days ago the World Health Organization reaffirmed its commitment to eliminating this tiny little creature from its last known habitats, the Atlanta Center for Disease Control in the United States, and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Russia.
I know what you’re thinking: After seeing the Russian obsession with security and containment at Chernobyl, perhaps little smallpox survives elsewhere too, but alas, it doesn’t — that we know of. Unofficially, it might. After all, defectors from the old Evil Empire told tales of vastly larger habitats made for Soviet and perhaps Soviet Satellite countries’ weapons programs, but until these virus stores are found accidentally or on purpose, we have to assume only two habitats remain. And assuming is about the best we can do, because apparently when smallpox stores were eradicated and confined to their last two remaining habitats, no inspections were carried out to ensure other nations had destroyed their samples. Of course, when you’re dealing with this kind of deadly virus with bio-weapon potential, it’s best to trust and not verify. You’ll sleep better just not knowing.
Our endangered little friend could show up as a surprise somewhere. Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about a “bizarre bits” museum exhibit in Virginia that displayed a note from 1873. On this note was pinned the scab of a smallpox victim. Apparently, museum officials decided the odds were minimal that anything catchy was left on it, but somehow, minimal odds weren’t enough to convince spoiled sports at the CDC who arrived in biohazard suits to collect the sample and confine it to a secured facility.
Nothing found on the scab was contagious, or at least that’s the official story the public was given to make us feel better. It worked. I know I felt better. Nothing happened and crisis was averted. The last stocks of smallpox are still alone… or are they?
The story in the WSJ and the precautions taken in that incident suggest that we are not as sure as officialdom would have us believe that the smallpox virus has been permanently eliminated. We’re pretty sure, but definitely not “I’d bet my life there’s no way to catch smallpox” sure. And don’t you want to be that sure when it comes to this subject? Let’s face it, it’s okay to be sure about the capital of Iowa and end up being wrong, but it’s not OK to be sure that a scab attached to a letter isn’t carrying a disease that will wipe out a third of the human population and turn out to be wrong. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating about the third, but if you’re among the first exposed, I think you’d appreciate the hyperbole. Museum officials suggested that countless artifacts are out there similar to their scab-on-letter display. What if one of those future items ends up with a big surprise?
Reportedly, scientists who study the virus want it preserved for further research and vaccine development and generally scientists who do not specifically study the virus seem more anxious for its elimination. In a Sky News story, an advocate for eliminating remaining smallpox samples said, “There is no good scientific reason for keeping them, we already know all we need to know about the smallpox virus.” This struck me as an odd thing for a professor to say. How could we know all we need to know or be sure we can even predict all we might ever need to know? How could we be sure that further study of the virus would not yield additional important information? Is it not possible that in the future new methods of inquiry might reveal information not yet imagined?
Let’s review: A 135-year-old letter prompted officials to take precautions in case of deadly contagion, and countless additional relics of this kind are thought spread throughout the world. The former Soviet Stock is likely a whole lot bigger than the Russians are saying, but officially it’s not. At least some scientists who specifically study the virus want stocks preserved for further study. And the good guys (that’s us) can safely contain, study and use this stock with the potential to create advances in vaccines.
Yet, smallpox is still threatened with extinction. WHO has delayed setting the date of destruction, but remains determined on a course of elimination.
As long as there’s a chance of Variola smallpox virus showing up to plague mankind again — or even something similar to it, and having possession of samples of the smallpox virus may give us an advantage in waging war against it, does it not seem prudent to maintain the samples and switch the debate from destruction of these final stocks to redundancies in the safeguards of their preservation?
In the face of this threat, it’s time little smallpox was added to the endangered species list. After all, a potential species only has to hit one of five criteria and smallpox snags at least three: There is threatened destruction of its habitat; it’s declining due to predation (we’ve killed about all of it); and there are manmade factors that could affect its continued existence. Heck three out five should be a slam dunk.
One thing, though: let’s skip re-introducing this one into the wild.
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