Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Anthraxing New York

by Peter W. Huber - November 2009 (Publication dated Autumn 2009) - City Journal

On May 14, 1796, Edward Jenner injects eight-year-old James Phipps with cowpox pus taken from lesions on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes, and finds that this mild infection protects Phipps from deliberate attempts to infect him with an aged and thus weakened form of the human pox. Jenner publishes his findings two years later, content to gift the most valuable pharmaceutical discovery of all time to suffering humanity. “Yours is the comfortable reflection that mankind can never forget that you have lived,” writes Thomas Jefferson in a letter sent to Jenner in 1806.

But smallpox fought back. The strain that emerged 3,000 years ago killed about 30 percent of those infected. In the late nineteenth century, a milder strain appeared, killing a mere 1 percent. A 12 percent killer emerged in 1963. The first and worst perished on Bhola Island in 1975, but wiping out its siblings took another two years. To this day, as David Koplow recounts in his 2003 book Smallpox, “no one knows for certain where, when, or how these less noxious smallpox relatives crept into existence.”

We do know, however, that the vaccine that ended up beating them all wasn’t Jenner’s. The details are forever hidden, and Koplow himself doesn’t speculate about them, but it’s easy to surmise how this vaccine came into being. Picture how the market for what began as Jenner’s vaccine operated through all but the last few decades of its two-century run. Infectious muck was scraped from scabs found on cows or milkmaids, then scraped back into human arms. It was transported on sailing ships to America by moving it from arm to arm, a human chain letter. Unwashed human hands, knives, and needles did the scraping, inevitably picking up more muck along the way, including smallpox itself. Countless unregulated purveyors of vaccine got involved, many of them careless, incompetent, or worse. Washington did its bit here, too—the national “vaccine agent” it appointed in 1813 accidentally sent real smallpox instead of vaccine to North Carolina, infecting 60 people and killing ten.

But people apparently noticed and spread the word: this shot works better than that one. Such choices, accumulating over the years, had bred better grains, dogs, and sheep, and now they set about breeding a better vaccine. And on it went, until the huge Wyeth Labs picked what it considered the best of the breed, got it licensed, and—with a little help from the Left—obliterated the greatest bioterrorist of them all.

The story of Variola major ended in 1975, but vaccinia’s didn’t end until gene sequencers set out a quarter-century later to find out what it really was. The several strains of smallpox in the wild, we now know, were all eradicated by just one virus—the same “novel, separate creature”—in all the needles. It appears to be a remix of cowpox, another cousin that poxes horses, and the human pox. It was created, as Koplow notes, by means that were “somehow inadvertent, invisible to the practitioners, and global.” Or as a biologist and an economist whose lives overlapped Jenner’s might have put it, by means of natural selection and the invisible hand.

This is one of those rare articles that changes the view of anyone intelligent who reads it. The story about small pox is an important lesson for anyone who wants to live and see the next generation better off than the last. Stupid politically correct liberals have sabotaged the free wheeling health care and pharmaceutical development industry that defeated small pox. Competition for what worked replaced all the errors of the process and ended a terrible scourge. Yet those on the left have destroyed the system that accomplished this great goal.

The incomepetence displayed in handling this year's swine flu virus and the vaccine to defeat it should be all that is needed to encourage a return to a better system. However totalitarian minded left wing fanatics will not let that happen. Our pharmaceutical industry has been collapsed into a few scared government dependent companies who see that subservience to government is their only chance for profit.

The American people are left helpless before a world of disease that was defeated once, but is now capable of wiping out innocent victims on a scale unimaginable. The people who have done this should be the ones wiped from our planet. However they run the government - so they allow no one to criticize them.


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