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Smallpox Biological Warfare

The British considered using smallpox as a biological warfare agent during the French and Indian Wars (1754–63), against France and its Native American allies at the Siege of Fort Pitt.1, 2 On one occasion in June 1763, two blankets and a handkerchief that had been exposed to smallpox were given to representatives of the besieging Delawares with the aim of spreading the disease and ending the siege.3 Historians do not agree on whether this effort to broadcast the disease was successful. It has also been alleged that smallpox was used as a weapon during the American Revolutionary War (1775–83).4, 5

During World War II, scientists from the United Kingdom, United States and Japan were involved in research into producing a biological weapon from smallpox.6 Plans of large scale production were never carried through as they considered that the weapon would not be very effective due to the wide-scale availability of a vaccine.5

In 1947 the Soviet Union established a smallpox weapons factory in the city of Zagorsk, 75 km to the northeast of Moscow.7 An outbreak of weaponized smallpox possibly occurred during testing at the factory in the 1970s.7

Responding to international pressures, in 1991 the Soviet government allowed a joint US-British inspection team to tour four of its main weapons facilities at Biopreparat. The inspectors were met with evasion and denials from the Soviet scientists, and were eventually ordered out of the facility. In 1992 Soviet defector Ken Alibek confirmed that the Soviet bioweapons program at Zagorsk had produced a large stockpile—as much as twenty tons—of weaponized smallpox (possibly engineered to resist vaccines), along with refrigerated warheads to deliver it. It is not known whether these stockpiles still exist in Russia. In 1997, however, the Russian government announced that all of its remaining smallpox samples would be moved to the Vector Institute in Koltsovo.9 With the breakup of the Soviet Union and unemployment of many of the weapons program’s scientists, there is concern that smallpox and the expertise to weaponize it may have become available to other governments or terrorist groups who might wish to use virus as means of biological warfare.8

Smallpox is a Class A bioterrorism agent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. public health system and primary healthcare providers must be prepared to address various biological agents, including pathogens that are rarely seen in the United States. High-priority agents include organisms that pose a risk to national security because they:

– Can be easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person.
– Result in high mortality rates, have the potential for major public health impact.
– Might cause public panic and social disruption.
– 1.Require special action for public health preparedness.10

1.Peckham, Indian Uprising, 226; Anderson, Crucible of War, 542, 809n.

2.Anderson, Crucible of War, 809n; Grenier, First Way of War, 144; Nester, Haughty Conquerors”, 114–15.

3.Anderson, Crucible of War, 541–42; Jennings, Empire of Fortune, 447n26.

4.”BBC – History – Silent Weapon: Smallpox and Biological Warfare”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/pox_weapon_01.shtml. Retrieved 2008-01-02.

5.Elizabeth A. Fenn. “Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Mar., 2000), pp. 1552–1580

6.”USAMRIID’s Medical Management of Biological Casualties Handbook” (PDF). http://usamriid.detrick.army.mil/education/bluebookpdf/USAMRIID%20Blue%20Book%205th%20Edition.pdf. Retrieved 2008-01-02.

7.Alibek K, Handelman S (1999). Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World—Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It. New York: Delta. ISBN 0-385-33496-6.

8.Shoham D, Wolfson Z (2004). “The Russian biological weapons program: vanished or disappeared?” ([dead link] – [scholar search] http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?hl=en&lr=&q=intitle%3AThe+Russian+biological+weapons+program%3A+vanished+or+disappeared%3F&as_publication=Crit.+Rev.+Microbiol.&as_ylo=2004&as_yhi=2004&btnG=Search). Crit. Rev. Microbiol. 30 (4): 241–61. doi:10.1080/10408410490468812. PMID 15646399. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tandf/bmcb/2004/00000030/00000004/art00002.

9.”Smallpox – not a bad weapon” (in Russian). Interview with General Burgasov. Moscow News. http://mn.ru/issue.php?2001-46-48. Retrieved 2007-06-18.

10.History and Epidemiology of Global Smallpox Eradication From the training course titled “Smallpox: Disease, Prevention, and Intervention”. The CDC and the World Health Organization. Slide 16-17. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Bioterrorism, Anthrax What You Need to Know, http://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/agentlist-category.asp, Retrieved Oct-27-2009

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