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Uncertain Threat

Does smallpox really spread that easily?
smallpox



REUTERS NEWMEDIA, INC. Corbis

"Biological terrorism is our future, and smallpox is a serious threat," insists Ken Alibek, who headed the former Soviet Union's biological weapons program. Now vice chairman of Advanced Biosystems, based in Alexandria, Va., Alibek was one of 200 epidemiologists and tropical disease experts who gathered in Geneva last October to discuss how nations should prepare for an outbreak. The U.S. has already outlined its plan--a voluntary regimen that aims to vaccinate a total of 10.5 million people in phases.

Some scientists, however, see little data to support such widespread vaccination. The plan is partly based on mock scenarios and mathematical models that attempt to predict the magnitude of an outbreak. One major problem is that they must use data on smallpox transmission gathered from pre-1977 Africa, where the last smallpox case occurred. The virus might behave completely differently in today's unvaccinated cosmopolitan societies. And all models rely on assumptions that by their nature are inaccurate.

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