A blast from the past

Don’t you hate it when you’re rooting through your storage closet, looking for some old high school yearbooks, and you stumble across a few vials of smallpox you forgot to destroy? Yes, smallpox—declared eradicated 34 years ago—is serious. But there is irony here. Recall the year 2002, when our political leaders used the threat of “hostile groups or governments” in order to implement a smallpox vaccination campaign (one that failed miserably, achieving vaccination of only 10% of its stated target). Alas, Saddam didn’t have smallpox, but he might have stood a chance to procure it if he had only befriended the night janitor at a certain lab in Bethesda.

I’ll use this opportunity to highlight the 2002 NY Times editorial that called out Mike and his hospital for refusing to implement this misguided vaccine campaign. In retrospect, quite a badge of honor to have been deemed “deplorable” in the paper-of-record, for making a reasoned decision to protect patient and healthcare worker safety.


  1. This reminds me of the Modified Vaccinia Ankara (MVA) vaccine that was developed in the 1960s as a replication-deficient attenuated smallpox vaccine:


    Apparently it had an excellent side effect profile and immunogenicity, as measured by neutralizing antibodies, but because it had become available shortly before the eradication of smallpox, it was never able to prove itself in a real smallpox epidemic and was therefore -- apparently -- not recognized as effective by the authorities who implemented the campaign in 2002.

    Its strength apparently also lies in the abilitity to be able to pre-vaccinate naive vaccinees with MVA, followed by the real vaccinia strain, and thereby significantly reduce the side effect of the 'real' vaccinia strain that followed:

    Stickl H, Hochstein-Mintzel V, Mayr A, Huber HC, Schäfer H, Holzner A. MVA-Stufenimpfung gegen Pocken. Klinische Erprobung des attenuierten Pocken-Lebendimpfstoffes, Stamm MVA. [Staged MVA vaccination against smallpox: clinical tests with an attenuated live vaccinia virus strain, strain MV. Dtsch med Wochenschr 1974; 99(47): 2386-2392. DOI: 10.1055/s-0028-1108143.

    Mayr A, Hochstein-Mintzel V, Stickl H. Abstammung, Eigenschaften und Verwendung des attenuierten Vaccinia-Stammes MVA. [Passage history, properties, and applicability of the attenuated vaccinia virus strain MVA]. Infection 1975;3:6-14. doi: 10.1007/BF01641272.


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