As biological weapons go, anthrax is nowhere as terrifying as several others, says Jim Matthews, an associate professor of pharmacy at Northeastern University. Smallpox would be a lot worse. The government now has about 15 million doses of smallpox vaccine on hand. Experiments are getting underway to see whether it can be diluted so it could be administered to more people, and still be effective.
"Anthrax is not easily transferred, so to develop it as weapon is difficult, and in most cases it responds quite well to antibiotics," Matthews said. . "What I would be a lot more fearful and wary of is an outbreak of smallpox, caused by terrorist acts. Smallpox is contagious, and there is no effective treatment available. Some federal officials have reason to believe that Iraq is developing it as a biological weapon."
The Bush administration appears to agree with Matthews. Tommy Thompson, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, wants Congress to provide $509 million to buy vaccines from four drug companies. He is talking to the drug companies that used to make it, hoping they will agree to make the vaccine and deliver it next year so it can be stockpiled.
Smallpox is highly infectious, and can be fatal. When Europeans brought it to the New World, it spread like wildfire through some aboriginal populations, killing up to 90 percent of the Aztecs and several Northeastern Indian nations. There is no cure for the disease, and a severe infection can be fatal.
Samples of the virus have been kept alive in the United States and Russia, and some experts on biological warfare believe it has also been preserved in laboratories in Iraq and North Korea.