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Professor Hugh Pennington
Professor Hugh Pennington

BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW:
PROFESSOR HUGH PENNINGTON

OCTOBER 21ST, 2001

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST:
The issue that's dominated every newspaper and indeed every news broadcast this week was anthrax, today mixed in of course with the stories we mentioned early on about smallpox. Only one death from anthrax so far in the United States, no confirmed incidents of it here in Britain yet but whoever is doing it seems to have got the whole world as nervous as anything and I'm joined now from Aberdeen by one of Britain's leading experts on bacteria and what they can do, that's Professor Hugh Pennington. Good morning to you Hugh.

HUGH PENNINGTON:
Hello.

DAVID FROST:
Let me just start by saying, can you just clarify for us how many forms of anthrax there are?

HUGH PENNINGTON:
Basically two, there's the, the organism that grows in the body and causes disease and they can turn into a spore which is very resistant to things like heat and, and light and so on and that's why anthrax has been popularly described as a sort of biological weapon in theory because the spores can be distributed, they don't die in the air and so on and they're infectious.

DAVID FROST:
And in terms of being spread they're, it's, it's more difficult to manufacture or whatever the right word is, really effective anthrax than the other form, is that correct, is it, there are some forms of anthrax which you could almost create in a garage?

HUGH PENNINGTON:
Well yes, anthrax is actually quite easy to grow, it's not a sophisticated organism, anybody with a little bit of microbiological knowledge could make the organism, the problem with anthrax is actually delivering it to the victims. It's not a very good biological weapon from the point of view of killing people because people actually are quite resistant to infection, you have to breathe in a lot of spores before you get infected and that's what the experience, the recent experience in the United States has shown. A lot of people have spores detected up their noses but only one person, sadly, has been infected to the point of actually dying of it. So it's a pretty poor biological weapon from the killing point of view but it's a very good biological weapon from the point of view of creating fear, terror, mayhem, panic and so on.

DAVID FROST:
And it can be, it can be treated with antibiotics and other things?

HUGH PENNINGTON:
Oh absolutely, if you get the, for example the classical form of anthrax is a skin form, even before antibiotics 90 per cent of people recovered anyway and now virtually everybody recovers without any problems at all. The more dangerous one is the one which is caused by breathing the spores in and there very early treatment is obviously essential, in fact one gives the antibiotics on spec and that is thought to, to give a pretty secure outcome.

DAVID FROST:
And what about smallpox by comparison which we see on the front pages of the Independent on Sunday and, and the Observer this morning, smallpox is something quite different because a) it's contagious and b) there's no treatment for it.

HUGH PENNINGTON:
That's right, smallpox is quite different, it's a different kind of agent, it spreads from person to person unlike anthrax, anthrax is basically a disease of cows and sheep and so on, smallpox only infects people. The, one of the big differences for somebody who wants to use smallpox as a weapon is that anthrax is pretty easy to get because it's a common disease in most of the warmer parts of the world, so if you want to get some you just have to ask, you know go to one of these countries and it would be easy enough to find a diseased animal which has lots of the agent in it. Small pox, there are only two labs in the world which are very highly guarded which have smallpox virus in them and I would put smallpox very low on the list of potential weapons, again with a panic factor somebody claiming to have used smallpox, or spread smallpox that would be the danger rather than the actual use of it itself. There is a good vaccine of course against smallpox.

DAVID FROST:
There is a good vaccine against smallpox, some people say in a very, very, very, small number of cases it can cause brain damage but it's six out of the million isn't it?

HUGH PENNINGTON:
Well I think good in the sense that it works to protect people, it's an old-fashioned vaccine and it has what nowadays would be considered to be an unacceptably high complication rate. But if you're faced with actual smallpox the risk from the vaccine are much, much, much less than the risk from smallpox. Small pox used to kill about 20 per cent of the people that it infected, most people, you know 80 per cent recovered, but 20 per cent is a very high mortality from any infection and, and, and as you said it spreads from person to person. So in theory it's a good weapon in practice very difficult because getting hold of it is virtually impossible.

DAVID FROST:
Thank you very much indeed Professor, thank you very much for joining us. Admirably, admirably clear as ever, Hugh Pennington.

END

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