Who Has Their Hands on the Smallpox Virus? Are We Safe?

This is a partial transcript from On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, November 8, 2002. Click here to order the entire transcript of the show.

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GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST:  Smallpox.  It's the worst human disease on record.  So it's lucky for all of us that it's in the right hands.  Or is it?

Joining me is Richard Preston, who is the author of The Demon in the Freezer, a true story.

Welcome, Richard.


VAN SUSTEREN:  Richard, the issue of smallpox -- if one person gets smallpox and, for instance, walks through a crowded city, what's the -- you know, give me an idea of how many people are likely to contract it.  Or can't you tell me that?

PRESTON:  Well, there's a huge debate going on right now among experts as to exactly how fast smallpox would spread in the modern world.  But one can easily conceive of a scenario whereby smallpox -- maybe each person who is infected with it might infect maybe 10 more, for example, and then it would grow exponentially or explosively in a human population.

We live in a society now where people travel a lot.  People go into shopping malls.  They commute to work.  They work in big cities.  And the question really would be, if it began to spread fast, could the government rush enough vaccine into place to be able to stop it before it went everywhere?

VAN SUSTEREN:  In your book that you've written about smallpox, you talk about the response of the military.  What is our military readiness, especially in light of September 11, in the event that there's a smallpox outbreak?

PRESTON:  Well, I think that, in a way, the military would be not able to handle an outbreak of smallpox.  What we would rely on would be medical professionals, front-line people who deal with human medical care.  They would have to handle it somehow.

One of the, I think, terrifying things about smallpox is that it has a known historical tendency to amplify itself in hospitals.  If you get one person or two people inside a hospital with smallpox, the virus can drift through the air.  It actually comes out of victims' mouths and can travel widely inside a building.

If it gets into a hospital, it begins to infect doctors, patients, staff, anybody who is exposed, and the hospital then acts as a kind of magnifier of the virus and can then bring it out into the community in the bodies of people.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Is smallpox curable once you contract it?

PRESTON:  Not now.  It is a virus, and, once it begins to replicate beyond a certain point in the human body, there's no cure for it.  You just have to go through the disease.

However, the vaccine can work on smallpox even up to about four days after you've been exposed to the virus.  So that's the good news about smallpox, that it's a little bit like -- it's a little bit like rabies.  If you get bitten by the mad dog, you can take the vaccine and you can be cured.  The vaccine with smallpox can do the same.

VAN SUSTEREN:  In your book, you write the story about a man who contracted smallpox in not too distant history and he recovered.  He made his way through the disease, but others who were remote to him, even in the building, died.  Why?

PRESTON:  Well, it's an amazing virus.  It's -- when it gets into the human body, it interacts in different weird ways with the human immune system.  Some people don't get very sick.  Others get extreme forms of smallpox that are not even recognizable to doctors.  They look more like the Ebola virus.

I don't want to get too graphic, but things happen like the skin can wrinkle up and fall off the body.  You can -- actually, the eyes can fill up with blood.  It's pretty horrific in its extreme forms.

VAN SUSTEREN:  Are you worried?  I mean, give me a realistic assessment.  You've studied this.  You've studied the problem of smallpox.  Give me your level of concern for the United States.

PRESTON:  Well, I think that smallpox is one of the most powerful of biological weapons, and it is a weapon that may very well be in the hands of Iraq right now, and, as the United States maneuvers toward a war with Iraq, one has to ask the question: Would Saddam be crazy enough to stage some sort of a release of smallpox on the United States?

You know, we heard earlier in the segment about -- with -- from Mr. Richmonds.  I thought that was fascinating.  He's a man who survived a very low level exposure to anthrax.  Now the anthrax that came out of those envelopes was minute in quantities.

If you snuff out a candle and you look at that little stream of smoke coming out of the end of the candle, that's about the amount of material that went directly into the air from those letters when they were opened, for example, in the Senate office building.

In the Senate office building, it took $26 million and six months to clean that building up.  It took $35 million to clean up the postal facilities.  And what that tells you -- the lesson there was really more of a lesson for terrorists even than for us.  It was saying this stuff works, it can be done, and, if you use a weapon like smallpox, the effects could be much greater.

VAN SUSTEREN:  All right, Richard.  Obviously, a terrifying situation but I appreciate it.  The book is The Demon in the Freezer.  It's a great book.  Appreciate you joining us tonight.

PRESTON:  Good to be with you, Greta.

Click here to order the entire transcript of the November 8  edition of On the Record.

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