NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Biowarfare: Smallpox

November 7, 2001

Smallpox, a viral disease recorded as early as 3700 B.C., has reportedly killed more people than the Black Death and all wars of the 20th century combined. It is a highly contagious disease that kills 30 percent of its victims and leaves survivors scarred and disfigured.

According to "Scourge," a book about the disease's eradication, for the last several centuries it has been used as a biological warfare agent:

  • When Fort Pitt was in danger of falling to the Indians after the French and Indian War, the commander gave an Indian delegation "two Blankets and a Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital." The Indians' siege ended when an epidemic subsequently broke out among them.
  • Thomas Jefferson and George Washington accused the British of biowarfare against the Continental Army, and Confederates reportedly used similar tactics against Union troops.
  • Later the now-infamous Japanese Army Unit 731 tested weaponized versions of smallpox on prisoners of war in Manchuria.
  • And a secret Soviet weapons program deployed smallpox in special missiles that were refrigerated to protect the virus during re-entry.

After a 12-year vaccination effort, the world was freed of smallpox, saving millions of people from pain, disfigurement and death. The $300 million spent to wipe out the disease compared favorably with the $2 billion a year that had been spent on vaccinations, inspections and quarantines.

The eradication program was so successful, routine smallpox vaccinations ended globally in the early 1980s. Today almost every person on earth is vulnerable once again, because smallpox vaccinations are not a lifelong protection; they lose effectiveness after about 10 years.

Source: Lewis Perdue, "Bioterrorism: Old as War Itself," review of Jonathan B. Tucker, "Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox," Balancing the Books, Barron's, November 5, 2001.

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