Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Smallpox destruction deadline

Smallpox-Destruction deadline gets delayed, McKay B, Wall Street Journal, May 2011.

This article in the Wall Street Journal talks about the deadline for the destruction of the smallpox virus being delayed. I feel that this article is leaning more towards the side for destroying the samples as every time they mention an argument against they try to counter with an argument for. An example here is when they say "A scientific review completed late last year by a WHO advisory committee concluded the stocks were still needed. But a separate review by independent experts argued that the only "compelling" reason to keep the live virus is to meet regulatory standards for testing vaccines and drugs, and new methods should be developed that don't require the live virus." 

I disagree with the point that this article is making as I feel that we should not destroy the smallpox samples. In the article Nils Daulaire states that the decision makes them "three years closer to having the countermeasures we're aiming for". He is telling us that if the samples were destroyed this would mean it would take much longer to be able to protect against bioterror attacks leaving us more vulnerable. It is also mentioned that a "WHO advisory committee concluded the stocks were still needed" with their counter argument being "a separate review by independent experts argued that the only "compelling" reason to keep the live virus is to meet regulatory standards". On this point they have a well-respected and known committee on one side and some unknown experts on the other. This makes their point less believable as we do not know whether to trust their source as they have not been willing to give their names.

Proposed destruction of smallpox virus creates controversy, Parry W, LiveScience, April 2011.

This article also discusses the possible destruction of smallpox. I feel this article is more towards the idea of saving the smallpox samples as they counter their arguments against destroying them by saying “Others, however, warn that labelling possession of the virus a crime against humanity will in no way deter terrorists, and that without the live smallpox virus, called variola, we won't be able to prepare for the worst”. They also mention that “Hruby is working on an antiviral treatment for those who have been infected too long for the vaccine to be effective” and let us know that the living virus samples are needed in order for this treatment to be made. Another point made shows us their opinion on the virus being used as a bioweapon telling us that “Terrorism would be an unlikely source of smallpox outbreak” if we kept the virus samples intact because “we would be so well-protected against it that it would be unlikely to be effective if used”. They do give the other side of the argument however this seems to be a very understated attempt as they just tell us that “Theoretically everybody still agrees this should be done” and “The United States fully agrees that these samples should eventually be destroyed” and the two points are quickly countered.

I feel the article gives some good points and am extremely inclined to agree with their side of the argument. I find that their arguments towards keeping the virus are strong and based on real facts with some good points to back these facts up.

In the whole debate on destroying the smallpox samples I find myself on the side for keeping them. There are many ways we can use the virus to create new anti-vaccines and to learn more about many other disease that are similar. I feel that in the long run we will benefit from the decision not to destroy. I also find that the arguments for destroying are much weaker points and that most of them are unlikely, such as the idea that keeping the virus will result in another outbreak or cause someone to begin making bioweapons. These points bring me to the conclusion that the virus samples should be kept and not destroyed.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Introduction to smallpox

Name of disease

Name of causative agent

Variola virus
Type of microbe


Double strand DNA dependant RNA
·      Naked or Enveloped


·      Geographic Prevalence

Was worldwide now zero
·      Average rates of infection

Was about 400,000 deaths a year now zero
·      Reservoir(s)

·      Main transmission mode(s)

Person to person

·      Major tissues/organs affected

All major tissues and organs
·      Major signs/symptoms

Fever, aches, chills, vomiting and a rash that becomes pus filled sores
·      Sequalae?

Bone lesions and deformed joints
·      Latency?

7-17 days

·      Main treatment methods

·      Typical length of treatment

17 days
·      Prophylactic measures


Monday, 4 March 2013

But first Anthrax

Anthrax is caused by bacteria, the cell is rod shaped and the gram reaction is positive.

Over the years we have learnt about anthraxs effect on the body and how to try to both cure and prevent it. The potential treatment is a sixty day course of strong antibiotics which are not always good enough. They do however lower the death rates considerably. In the cases of cutaneous anthrax the death rate goes from a 20% chance to being only a 1% chance, with gastrointestinal it goes from a 60% chance to a 40% chance and with inhalation anthrax the chances go from a 100% chance of death to a 75% chance. There is also a preventative method which is a vaccine which was created in 2001 by a team led by Scottish scientist Sir William Stewart.

Our attitude towards the disease has also changed over the years. Now, instead of just trying to prevent people from getting it and trying to cure those who have got it, scientists have managed to develop a way to turn the disease into a biological weapon. In 1942 British scientists released anthrax on a Scottish island called Gruinard. This is because it was feared that the Germans might attack Britain with their own biological or chemical weapons similar to anthrax and Britain wanted to be ready to retaliate should this attack occur. They tested it on sheep which began to die after only three days. For fifty years after this event the island was still considered too dangerous and was out of bounds. This lead to the idea of trying to decontaminate the island in 1986. This cost half a million pounds and consisted of soaking the entire island in 280 tonnes of formaldehyde diluted in 2000 tonnes of seawater. The mission was decided to be successful and sheep were once again allowed to graze on the island. In 1990 Gruinard even had its red warning sign removed by junior defence minister Michael Neubert.

In 2001 in America there were cases of anthrax in powder form being placed into envelopes and posted. When opened the letters released a cloud of anthrax which entered the victims lungs. As inhalation anthrax is the most deadly and fast acting form of anthrax the victims found themselves with severe symptoms and an extremely high death rates. Those victims that were not diagnosed within the first weeks and even some that were died. The use of anthrax as a biological weapon has been banned by international law since 1972 however soldiers, especially those in the US army, still get vaccinated against the disease.

Anthrax is not particularly prevalent but can be found worldwide and it is very unlikely that anyone currently has it as there are about two cases worldwide per year. The reservoir of anthrax are sheep, cows and wild animals.
Modes of transmission -
  • Cutaneous anthrax affects the skin tissue and generally results in lesions,
  • Inhalation anthrax affects the lungs and usually causes flu like symptoms and breathing difficulties
  • Gastrointestinal anthrax affects the intestines and causes severe diarrhoea and other gastrointestinal problems.

Anthrax takes about a week for the symptoms to show and then there is a fairly rapid decline. If the patient does not receive treatment within the first couple of weeks there is a high chance of death with all forms.  

These days we know much more about anthrax than we used to and this helps us to recognise the signs of the disease quickly while there is still time to act. We also test meat that is intended for consumption to check for this type of thing. If anthrax was discovered in the soil or found in any of the cattle or meat products now we have a way to deal with it and make the soil safe again. This method includes digging up a large area of the soil, usually a fifteen mile radius and many feet deep, and then passing the infected soil through an incinerator. After this process the soil is then safe to be replaced back where it came from. Normally there is some form of infected cattle also, usually cows or sheep, and this too has to be incinerated and any meat that has been sent out is recalled and disposed of accordingly. Anthrax cannot survive at extreme temperature and although if cooked correctly the meat would be safe for human consumption it is best not to risk it as the effects of gastrointestinal anthrax are severe and have a high death rate.

However, further back in time anthrax was used as a biological weapon and many tests were performed by many countries to see the effects of the disease. This meant that sometimes surrounding communities would contract anthrax. An example of this is in Russia in 1979. The small mining town of Sverdlovsk appeared to be having an outbreak of influenza and soviet government officials claimed this was due to some tainted meat. This was shown to be suspicious when medical teams began wearing protective clothing and giving out some kind of vaccination but the story of tainted meat was still being firmly stuck to. Until 1992 nobody could prove any different. In 1992 an American team was finally allowed into Sverdlovsk to investigate and they found that despite Russia being forbidden by international law from creating biological weapons they had been preparing for biological warfare regardless. The soviet government had not only been cultivating anthrax but had also managed to perfect methods of stopping the tiny spores from clumping together meaning that they were even more suited to biological warfare and even more dangerous than ever before. It is estimated that there was once several tonnes of anthrax spores in storage in Russia at one point however now it is unsure where these spores have been relocated.

The law preventing the development, production or ownership of biological agents or toxins along with the new methods we have to cure, prevent and dispose of anthrax infected animals and soil should mean that the spread of anthrax is fairly limited. The evidence of this is shown in the fact that very few people contract anthrax these days with the estimated total being a maximum of two per year.


BBC News, (2001), Britain's 'Anthrax Island', Available:, Last accessed 28th Jan 2013.

Knights E, Anthrax, Available:, Last accessed 28th Jan 2013.

ADAM, (2013), Anthrax, Available:, Last accessed 28th Jan 2013.

Hicks R, (2010), Anthrax, Available:, Last accessed 28th Jan 2013.

RD, (2013), Anthrax, Available:, Last accessed 28th Jan 2013.