Well, that’s odd. In today’s New York Times, Judith Miller reports that “reversing a course set two decades ago, [the Bush administration] has decided that the world’s remaining stocks of smallpox should be retained until scientists develop new vaccines and treatments for the disease.”
As I noted yesterday, my new article in The New Republic addresses this question — specifically, Tommy Thompson’s new bioterrorism czar’s strident opposition to precisely this policy and his repeated denials that new vaccines or treatments can or need be developed.
The quickly-assembled Times article characterizes the change of policy like this:
A succession of administrations have endorsed the goal of destroying the virus, which was eradicated as a disease in the 1970’s. But some American scientists and Pentagon officials have argued for retaining smallpox stocks, and in 1999 President Bill Clinton declared that they should be maintained, at least temporarily, while more research was conducted.
The Clinton administration privately assured other nations that it would support a move to kill off smallpox in 2002 when the issue was considered by the World Health Organization, which has long advocated destruction of the virus …
“The issue was straightforward,” said a senior official. “Are we going to do what we can to be prepared for what is one of the most consequential threats we face, or are we going to engage in feel-good measures that mask the real danger?”
From my understanding, this significantly misstates the situation. The Clinton administration actually made this decision in 1999. They may not have enunciated the plan with the same self-serving badass-ery as the Bush folks. But no one whom I’ve ever spoken to believes the decision made in 1999 was meant to be anything but permanent. In fact, if you look back at Miller’s own articles in the Times from April 22nd, April 23rd, and May 22nd 1999 I think it pretty much bears me out.
The World Health Organization still planned, and still plans, to revisit the issue in 2002. But that’s the WHO, not the US government. This is at best a more definitive statement of a key policy change Bill Clinton made in 1999.
Be that as it may, the Miller article only underscores a pretty basic question: If the Bush administration believes that smallpox should not be destroyed, that keeping the stocks will make possible the development of new medicines and vaccines, and that all of this is critical to national security, how is it that its new chief of bioterrorism preparedness at HHS adamantly believes that each of these propositions is misguided and false?
Note to White House press corps: TPM is giving you a gimme question for Ari.