I’ve made something of a fuss in this space over what I take to be our extreme vulnerability to a smallpox attack, and what I therefore take to be the extreme fecklessness of the current administration in not starting a mass vaccination program.
Tonight Tom Schelling pointed out to me something obvious once noticed, but largely undiscussed so far: given international air travel patterns, any substantial smallpox outbreak in the United States would quickly spread worldwide. That makes it an almost useless weapon except in the hands of someone who doesn’t care whom he kills. The casualty rate in poor countries would be much higher than that in rich countries. So a smallpox attack on the US would, if successful, be more likely to kill the attackers and their neighbors than it would to kill Americans.
Well, that’s certainly encouraging news. But Schelling went on to make the next point, equally obvious once stated: the fact that smallpox is a blowback weapon does us no good unless the leadership of, for example, al-Qaeda is aware of that fact. And since it seems to have escaped the notice of lots of smart people in this country, we can’t confidently assume that it will occur to someone planning such an attack.
Conclusion: the U.S. should sponsor a WHO conference on the risks of bioterror, and make sure that the conference report includes a strong statement of the point that smallpox, at least, isn’t a locally containable weapon.