HEALTH – “Smallpox is once again taking pride of place in the modern arsenal of biological weapons.” This warning is that of two scientists in a column published in The world in June 1980, the day after its eradication. If there is something sinister about the current monkeypox epidemic – which affected 1,837 people in France as of July 26, 2022 – it will not surprise the Minister of Health, François Braun.
The latter also explained, on the antenna of France Info this Wednesday, July 27, that the stock of vaccines against smallpox – which also makes it possible to fight against monkeypox – “is secret defense, because [ce virus] is recognized as a biological weapon”. A classification which does not date from yesterday, and which does not only concern smallpox.
From the Cold War to Terrorism
Biological weapons have always been part of the arsenal of humans in times of war. This is how the terrible Black Death of 1346 is said to have started: the Mongol army, defeated before the Genoese city of Caffa, is said to have catapulted plague-ridden corpses over the city walls.
Since the Middle Ages, advances in medicine and the arrival of modern warfare have clarified the biological threat. After the Second World War, the bacteriologist Théodore Rosebury defines the characteristics of an infectious agent that can be used as a weapon: resistant, contagious, difficult to treat… The two blocs did not hesitate to carry out research in this direction during the Cold War. Among the pathogens studied: smallpox.
The Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 will outlaw the military use of plague, smallpox or any other disease. “Western states have respected the Convention, France the first”, assures Olivier Lepick, associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research and specialist in chemical and biological weapons.
But the biological threat materialized brutally in the mid-1990s. On March 20, 1995, the Aoun sect killed 13 people and injured 6,300 in a Sarin gas attack in the middle of the Tokyo subway. It is then that France will develop a real protocol for responding to a biological attack.
Smallpox, anthrax, botulism…
It is the Biotox plan (formerly Piratox) that dictates the response to be faced with a biological threat or the accidental dispersion of an infectious agent. The plan includes the surveillance of laboratories at risk and, in the event of an outbreak, the provision of specialized hospitals, as well as the provision of emergency treatment for a whole list of diseases.
Among the infections listed, smallpox (from humans, not monkeys), despite its official eradication in 1980. “The virus is still officially held by two laboratories: the Vector Institute, in Siberia, and the CDC in Atlanta” , specifies Olivier Lepick at HuffPost. The health authorities also list the plague, brucellosis, botulism… In all, a dozen diseases, families of diseases or toxins.
Why these and not others, such as the MERS-CoV virus, a respiratory virus cousin of Covid-19? Their robustness. “Not all pathogens have the qualities that allow them to be militarized”, explains Olivier Lepick. “Some are too fragile, too sensitive to heat, to cold… and using them as a weapon is then too complex.”
This stability is, for example, a characteristic of the infamous anthrax, or anthrax. “In the form of spores, thehe anthrax bacteria is extremely resistant, almost indestructible. This allows it to be disseminated easily”, analyzes the specialist. This is why anthrax is also on the Biotox list, with stocks of antibiotics ready for distribution. Without knowing how much.
This is indeed the heart of the question posed to François Braun, this Wednesday on France Info and for several days by parliamentarians: what stocks of smallpox vaccines are available, ready for use against monkeypox? “Secrecy defense”, replied the Minister, while the 42,000 doses “destocked”, according to the Minister, pale in comparison to a population at risk which would be nearly ten times higher than this figure.
Almost two weeks ago, a representative of the Directorate General of Health had already expressed, before the senators, his impossibility of communicating the extent of the stocks. “If I divulge to you the things that are covered by secrecy, I risk 5 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 euros”, underlined Doctor Clément Lazarus, of the General Directorate of Health, during a hearing on the monkeypox before the Senate Social Affairs Committee.
This information is kept secret for all stocks of antibiotics, antivirals and vaccines planned to deal with a biological attack. It could even be a reinforced defense secret.
A classified document can be communicated to the public after 50 years, or even 100 years if people’s safety is at stake. or to locate nuclear, biological or chemical weapons”. A concrete barrier in the face of the freedom to inform… and the controversy over the lack of available doses.
See also on The HuffPost: Monkey pox: Why the gay community is concerned