In the 1960s, as medicine reached new levels of expertise and detente between the "superpowers" increased, the Soviet Union proposed a global campaign to eradicate the scourge of smallpox. This challenge was accepted by the United States and other countries, and was ultimately successful. The last refuges of the disease were stamped out through a coordinated vaccination campaign, primarily in Africa and Asia. (see tab above "biological warfare" for summaries about how this effort wiped out smallpox in the wild).

Smallpox eradication cost less than one B1 bomber. It is one of the best examples of shifting from warfare preparation to public health. Unfortunately, Cold War paranoia in the 1980s resulted in the Soviet Union covertly making an estimated 20 tons of smallpox in their secret biological warfare program. It is also likely other countries have dabbled in making this disease. In some ways this is at least as much of a threat as nuclear armed missiles, but the potential for an attack to boomerang back on a society that used smallpox as an offensive weapon may have created an uneasy stalemate, a biological version of "mutual assured destruction" that has so far kept nuclear weapons from being launched.


Dark Winter smallpox exercise: motive for creating Homeland

In June 2001, the US government conducted a biological warfare exercise called Dark Winter that anticipated a pandemic, although with smallpox (much worse than coronavirus).  Their scenario modeling predicted the country would fall apart quickly.  It was part of the motive for creating "Homeland." . It was a "tabletop" exercise -- participants were in a conference room, not moving people in public. The scenario modeled release of ultra-infectious smallpox in public places and estimated how fast it could spread. The exercise concluded that within two weeks it would become an unstoppable epidemic across the country, and beyond.

The Department of Homeland Security, created shortly after 9/11, was not only focused on preventing terrorist attacks but also how to cope with biological outbreaks (whether intentional or not).

One aspect to the anticipated spread was the role of aviation in carrying the contagion across the country. With coronavirus, aviation is the key amplifier, turning a local and regional problem potentially into a global pandemic.

The Northern Command, also created after 9/11, is likely to be a primary part of the US response if the disease accelerates in the "homeland." Northcom's first commander was the general who oversaw the "stand down" of the Air Force during 9/11, and now it is essentially the US planing for partial martial law during a crisis. The link below is a Northcom document about planning for a pandemic in the US. Released under the Freedom of Information Act, much of it is blacked out, censored - but some of the assumptions about disruption are readable.

United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM)
Concept of Operations Plan (CONPLAN) 3551-09,
Concept Plan to Synchronize DOD Pandemic Influenza Planning,
13 Aug 2009



Richard Preston

The New Yorker, July 12, 1999, pp. 44-61.


How smallpox, a disease of officially eradicated twenty years ago, 
became the biggest bioterrorist threat we now face. 



... Most people today have no immunity to smallpox. The vaccine begins to wear off in many people after ten years. Mass vaccination for smallpox came to a worldwide halt around twenty-five years ago. There is now very little smallpox vaccine on hand in the United States or anywhere else in the world. The World Health Organization once had ten million doses of the vaccine in storage in Geneva, Switzerland, but in 1990 an advisory committee recommended that most of it be destroyed, feeling that smallpox was longer a threat. Nine and a half million doses are assumed to have been cooked in an oven, leaving the W.H.O. with a total supply of half a million doses -- one dose of smallpox vaccine for every twelve thousand people on earth. A recent survey by the W.H.O. revealed that there is only one factory in the world that has recently made even a small quantity of the vaccine, and there may be no factory capable of making sizable amounts. The vaccine was discovered in the age of Thomas Jefferson, and making a lot of it would seem simple, but so far the United States government has been unable to get any made at all. Variola virus is now classified as a Biosafety Level 4 hot agent -- the most dangerous kind of virus -- because it is lethal, airborne, and highly contagious, and is now exotic to the human species, and there is not enough vaccine to stop an outbreak. Experts feel that the appearance of a single case of smallpox anywhere on earth would be a global medical emergency.

At the present time, smallpox lives officially in only two repositories on the planet. One repository is in the United States, in a freezer at the headquarters of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta -- the C.D.C. The other official smallpox repository is in a freezer at a Russian virology institute called Vector, also known as the State Research Institute of Virology and Biotechnology, which is situated outside the city of Novosibirsk, in Siberia. Vector is a huge, financially troubled former virus-weapons-development facility -- a kind of decayed Los Alamos of viruses -- which is trying to convert to peaceful enterprises.

There is a growing suspicion among experts that the smallpox virus may also live unofficially in clandestine biowarfare laboratories in a number of countries around the world, including labs on military bases in Russia that are closed to outside observers. The Central Intelligence Agency has become deeply alarmed about smallpox. Since 1995, a number of leading American biologists and public-health doctors have been given classified national-security briefings on smallpox. They have been shown classified evidence that as recently as 1992 Russia had the apparent capability of launching strategic-weapons-grade smallpox in special biological warheads on giant SS-18 intercontinental missiles that were targeted on the major cities of the United States. In the summer of last year, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan in a test, and the missile fell into the sea. Some knowledgeable observers thought that the missile could have been designed to carry a biologic warhead. If it had carried smallpox and landed in Japan, it could have devastated Japan's population: Japan has almost no smallpox vaccine on hand and its government seems to have no ability to deal with a biological attack. The United States government keeps a list of nations and groups that it suspects either have clandestine stocks of smallpox or seem to be trying to buy or steal the virus. The list is classified, but it is said to include Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, and Serbia. The list may also include the terrorist organization of Osama bin Laden and, possibly, the Aum Shinrikyo sect of Japan -- a quasi-religious group that had Ph.D. biologists as members and a belief that an apocalyptic war will bring them worldwide power. Aum members released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, and, as the year 2000 approaches, the group is still active in Japan and in Russia. In any case, the idea that smallpox lives in only two freezers was never anything more than a comfortable fiction. No one knows exactly who has smallpox today, or where they keep the virus, or what they intend to do with it.


[regarding a 1972 outbreak of smallpox in Yugoslavia]

.... Meanwhile, the Pilgrim's smallpox travelled in waves through Yugoslavia. A rising tide of smallpox typically comes in fourteen-day waves -- a wave of cases, a lull down to zero, and then a much bigger wave, another lull down to zero, then a huge and terrifying wave. The waves reflect the incubation periods, or generations, of the virus. Each wave or generation is anywhere from ten to twenty times as large as the last, so the virus grows exponentially and explosively, gathering strength like some kind of biological tsunami. This is because each infected person infects an average of ten to twenty more people. By the end of March, 1972, more than a hundred and fifty cases had occurred.

The Pilgrim had long since recovered. He didn't even know that he had started the outbreak. By then, however, Yugoslav doctors knew that they were dealing with smallpox, and they sent an urgent cable to the World Health Organization, asking for help.

Luckily, Yugoslavia had an authoritarian Communist government, under Josip Broz Tito, and he exercised full emergency powers. His government mobilized the Army and imposed strong measures to stop people from travelling and spreading the virus. Villages were closed by the Army, roadblocks were thrown up, public meetings were prohibited, and hotels and apartment buildings were made into quarantine wards to hold people who had had contact with smallpox cases. Ten thousand people were locked up in these buildings by the Yugoslav military. The daily life of the country came to a shocked halt. At the same time, all the countries surrounding Yugoslavia closed their borders with it, to prevent any travellers from coming out. Yugoslavia was cut off from the world. There were twenty-five foci of smallpox in the country. The virus had leapfrogged from town to town, even though the population had been heavily vaccinated. The Yugoslav authorities, helped by the W.H.O., began a massive campaign to revaccinate every person in Yugoslavia against smallpox; the population was twenty-one million. "They gave eighteen million doses in ten days," D. A. Henderson said. A person's immunity begins to grow immediately after the vaccination; it takes full effect within a week.

At the beginning of April, Henderson flew to Belgrade, where he found government officials in a state of deep alarm. The officials expected to see thousands of blistered, dying, contagious people streaming into hospitals any day. Henderson sat down with the Minister of Health and examined the statistics. He plotted the cases on a time line, and now he could see the generations of smallpox -- one, two, three waves, each far larger than the previous one. Henderson had seen such waves appear many times before as smallpox rippled and amplified through human populations. Reading the viral surf with a practiced eye, he could see the start of the fourth wave. It was not climbing as steeply as he had expected. This meant that the waves had peaked. The outbreak was declining. Because of the military roadblocks, people weren't travelling, and the government was vaccinating everyone as fast as possible. "The outbreak is near an end," he declared to the Minister of Health. "I don't think you'll have more than ten additional cases." There were about a dozen: Henderson was right -- the fourth wave never really materialized. The outbreak had been started by one man with the shivers. It was ended by a military crackdown and vaccination for every citizen. 

.... Henderson's voice came out of the gloom. He didn't bother to get up and turn on the lights. He said, "The way air travel is now, about six weeks would be enough time to seed cases around the world. Dropping an atomic bomb could cause casualties in a specific area, but dropping smallpox could engulf the world."

.... Viruses have an ability to move from one type of host to another in what is known as a trans-species jump. The virus changes during the course of a jump, adapting to its new host. The trans-species jump is the virus's most important means of long-term survival. Species go extinct; viruses move on. There is something impressive in the trans-species jump of a virus, like an unfurling of wings or a flash of stripes when a predator makes a rush. Some fifty years ago, in central Africa, the AIDS virus apparently moved out of chimpanzees into people. Chimpanzees are now endangered, while the AIDS virus is booming.

For most of human prehistory, people lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. The poxviruses did not deign to notice Homo sapiens as long as the species consisted of scattered groups; there was no percentage in it for a pox. With the growth of agriculture, the human population of the earth swelled and became more tightly packed. Villages became towns and cities, and people were crowded together in river valleys.

Epidemiologists have done some mathematics on the spread of smallpox, and they find that the virus needs a population of about two hundred thousand people living within a fourteen-day travel time from one another or the virus can't keep its life cycle going, and it dies out. Those conditions didn't occur in history until the appearance of settled agricultural areas and cities. At that point -- roughly seven thousand years ago -- the human species became an accident with a poxvirus waiting to happen.

Smallpox could be described as the first urban virus.

.... While I was sitting with D. A. Henderson in his house, I mentioned what seemed to me the great and tragic paradox of his life's work. The eradication caused the human species to lose its immunity to smallpox, and that was what made it possible for the Soviets to turn smallpox into a weapon rivalling the hydrogen bomb.

Henderson responded with silence, and then he said, thoughtfully, "I feel very sad about this. The eradication never would have succeeded without the Russians. Viktor Zhdanov started it, and they did so much. They were extremely proud of what they had done. I felt the virus was in good hands with the Russians. I never would have suspected. They made twenty tons -- twenty tons -- of smallpox. For us to have come so far with the disease, and now to have to deal with this human creation, when there are so many other problems in the world . . ." He was quiet again. "It's a great letdown," he said.

For years, the scientific community generally thought that biological weapons weren't effective as weapons, especially because it was thought that they're difficult to disperse in the air. This view persists, and one reason is that biologists know little or nothing about aerosol-particle technology. The silicon-chip industry is full of machines that can spread particles in the air. To learn more, I called a leading epidemiologist and bioterrorism expert, Michael Osterholm, who has been poking around companies and labs where these devices are invented. "I have a device the size of a credit card sitting on my desk," he said. "It makes an invisible mist of particles in the one-to-five-micron size range -- that size hangs in the air for hours, and gets into the lungs. You can run it on a camcorder battery. If you load it with two tablespoons of infectious fluid, it could fill a whole airport terminal with particles." Osterholm speculated that the device could create thousands of smallpox cases in the first wave. He feels that D. A. Henderson's estimate of how fast smallpox could balloon nationally is conservative. "D.A. is looking at Yugoslavia, where the population in 1972 had a lot of protective immunity," he said. "Those immune people are like control rods in a nuclear reactor. The American population has little immunity, so it's a reactor with no control rods. We could have an uncontrolled smallpox chain reaction." This would be something that terrorism experts refer to as a "soft kill" of the United States of America.

The New Yorker, March 9, 1998, pp. 52-65


In the last few years, Russian scientists have invented the world's deadliest 
plagues. Have we learned about this too late to stop it? 

By Richard Preston