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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 16:38 GMT
The producer of Smallpox 2002
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On Tuesday night BBC2 aired a powerful drama-documentary based on a fictional outbreak of the smallpox virus.

Smallpox 2002 interweaves fact with fiction to show how a single act of bioterrorism leads to terrifying consequences.

Shot on location in London, New York and Geneva, it chronicles the fictional smallpox pandemic of 2002.

Leading experts in the scientific field set the historical setting and explain how smallpox came to be a threat, while actors play the roles of people caught up in the outbreak.

Are you concerned about the threat of bioterrorism?

Smallpox 2002 producer Simon Chinn answered your questions in a live forum.


The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • Are we prepared?
  • Right to information
  • Giving people ideas?
  • Justifying military expenditure?
  • Danger of other viruses
  • Smallpox vaccine

    Are we prepared?


    Newshost:

    Emma, UK: Thank you BBC for a wonderful horrifying, thought-provoking piece of television. I now fear for the safety of our country - are we prepared? Are 60 million people worldwide really at risk of being killed by the smallpox pandemic?


    Simon Chinn:

    We were very careful with our figures. The epidemiology in the film - the way the disease will spread - was actually worked out in collaboration with arguably the world's leading expert in smallpox - D A Henderson - who is the man who led the campaign in the 1960s and 1970s to eradicate the disease. In the 1990s he rededicated his life to tackling bioterrorism to try to get America and other countries prepared. We sat down with him over the course of many months and plotted how this disease would be likely to spread in a world which is completely susceptible to the virus.


    Newshost:

    So you think the 60 million people being at risk of dying from smallpox is not an alarmist figure?


    Simon Chinn:

    Sixty million is actually considered by many experts I have spoken to - D A Henderson among them - to be actually a conservative figure. If you consider that no one has been vaccinated against smallpox for over 30 years, that there's no residual immunity to disease. When it was endemic in countries, people would pass on immunity through generations - that no longer exists. If you add to that, the way that people now travel, the density of populations - smallpox would spread like wildfire in today's environment.

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    Right to information


    Newshost:

    Billy Floyd, UK: I found it more informative than any Government information but I was also horrified by its realism. I kept asking myself what I could do and how I could protect my family - without the proper information, I can't protect them. The Americans have a right to such information, why don't we?

    Was part of your purpose in making the film to provide people with information or is the Government able to give this information if people just ask for it?


    Simon Chinn:

    Absolutely. We felt very responsible to raise awareness about the real threats to our security post-September 11th to discuss the way in which smallpox and other bioterrorism agents might spread and to raise questions about what we as nations need to do to get prepared. The programme was followed up by a Newsnight debate last night which raised specific questions about what the Government should be doing to prepare.

    One issue that we've tried to address in the film is that the Government should perhaps think about talking about this. The people who are going to be fire-fighting bioterrorism epidemics of this kind on the frontline are the public health workers, doctors, nurses - they don't have any information, the public doesn't have any information because the Government chooses not to discuss this.


    Newshost:

    But all those workers are currently up to their eyes, for instance, dealing with an outbreak of panic over MMR. To deal with something that actually is not that much of a realistic threat at the moment. Whereas you have a measles outbreak happening in the capital at the moment. - they've got enough on their hands haven't they?


    Simon Chinn:

    They certainly have a lot on their hands. But I dispute the notion that this isn't a realistic threat. A few months ago anthrax letters were being sent to people in America and around a dozen people died. That's 3,000 miles away but bioterrorism is no respecter of national boundaries. What we tried to show in our film is that smallpox in particular with its communicability would travel beyond the country in which it first appeared very quickly. In our scenario someone gets on a plane for London within the first eight days of the exposure and there begins a global pandemic. These are real issues and we need to prepare for them, our public health system needs to prepare for them alongside all the other things that it's dealing with.

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    Giving people ideas?


    Newshost:

    Hayley in the UK: The show was so convincing and scary. It was worrying it was so simple for the outbreak to start and makes me wonder if it might give some people ideas about doing this? You must feel vulnerable to that criticism?


    Simon Chinn:

    I think there is always a tension in discussing these things between - do you really discuss the very real issues and show people what the consequences of bioterrorism would be in all its graphic and horrifying detail against the notion that you might be putting ideas into people's heads.

    We thought about this for a long time. Biological weapons have been around for a long, long time. The British in the 18th century are said to have been the first people to deliberately release smallpox to kill American Indians in their attempt to colonise parts of North America. They've been with us for a long, long time. Osama bin Laden has called on Muslims to develop weapons of mass destruction as an Islamic duty. It doesn't really need TV to put ideas into terrorists' heads. Yes there is a tension but I think we were always aware of that and on balance we felt the programme could do some good in terms of generating a wider debate about preparedness.

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    Justifying military expenditure?


    Newshost:

    P White, UK: Was the aim of this programme to scare people to justify military expenses?


    Simon Chinn:

    Not at all, no. Bioterrorism isn't fundamentally about the military. The people, as I've just said, on the frontline who'd be responding to bioterrorism are the public health workers, the public health system. This is a public health issue so yes, in a sense the issues this raises, is our public health system well equipped enough to deal - not just with bioterrorism, not just with epidemics that are caused deliberately - but with naturally occurring epidemics. There are many emerging diseases in developing parts of the world that are coming to the West and we need to be prepared for those as well.

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    Danger of other viruses


    Newshost:

    Rob Marias, UK: The programme was based on the assumption that this virus exists outside the secure labs where the last known samples are. The chances it does exist are fairly small. Don't we have much more to worry about from the likes of Ebola and Marburg for which there is no vaccine?


    Simon Chinn:

    I don't think the emphatic statement that it's unlikely to exist outside its two official repositories is quite correct . I spoken to a number of people - chief among them was a man called Ken Alibek - who is a Russian bioweapons scientist who defected to America. He revealed to America that during the Cold War the Russians actually manufactured smallpox by the ton. He told me they had hundreds of tons of the stuff on a yearly basis which they would put in missiles and train on the West. The point is that after the break up of the Soviet Union, both the repositories where smallpox was kept were no longer secure and scientists who worked in the Russian programme travelled to other countries with biological weapons and were employed by them. The fear is - and the CIA believe - that smallpox may well have travelled with them. So countries like Iraq and North Korea are believed by the CIA and by the Russian intelligence agencies as well, to have stocks of smallpox for use as weapons.

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    Smallpox vaccine


    Newshost:

    Gary, UK: It's all well and good to calling for the Government to stock smallpox vaccines for everyone in the country. But terrorists can produce stocks of viruses that we don't have vaccines for. Shouldn't the focus be on firm action against individuals and states that are involved in the production of such weapons?


    Simon Chinn:

    That is a very serious issue. The American Government decided after September 11th that it wanted to procure enough smallpox vaccine for every citizen in America. The question as to whether we in the UK have follow suit is unknown - we're believed not to have.

    The emerging threats over the next decades as we move into the 21st century will come from the way in which terrorists in rogue states might genetically modify viruses to make them vaccine-resistant. There is really question about what you can do to prevent that. Clearly the international legislation at the biological weapons convention that tries to outlaw the production of biological weapons is one method by which these things could be prevented. At the moment it's a bit toothless. There is a question about how to give international legislation the teeth to prevent the production of these horrifying weapons.


    Newshost:

    Paul Dacas, UK: Why can't we mirror the US Government's plan to vaccinate every person in the UK? Can't we make a start by diluting all the vaccine we currently have?

    It was point made in your film that there isn't enough vaccine to go round and there won't be in the case of a crises and it would have to be diluted.


    Simon Chinn:

    The questioner suggests that America has made a decision to vaccinate - actually it hasn't - it has just made a decision to procure more vaccine - one for every citizen in the United States. But it's going to keep that vaccine in a stockpile to be ready only in the event of a bioterrorist attack using smallpox.

    The decision to pre-emptively vaccinate is much more contentious because the vaccine is considered at the moment to have greater risks than the risk of actually getting smallpox. It has complications - about one in a million people will die and people with immune deficiencies also will have trouble taking the vaccine. Should we in the UK follow suit? Yes, I think we should - I think we should stockpile smallpox vaccine. Should we pre-emptively vaccinate people? That's a difficult question. There are those in America at the moment who are beginning to argue that every American citizen should have a right to a vaccine in advance of a bioterrorist attack using smallpox.


    Newshost:

    Olaf Searson, Devon, UK: What would happen if a deadly virus were released? Does the UK Government have enough vaccines for the whole population? I think that the threat of mass terrorism, such as deadly viruses have always been there, it has taken a tragedy like September 11th for us to realise this.

    Presumably September 11th wasn't even in your minds when you started conceiving this programme? How has that affected the response to the programme and how did that affect how you made the programme?


    Simon Chinn:

    This was a hot issue before September 11th. Biological weapons presented a threat before September 11th and the threat hasn't really changed. We did have a genuine concern before September 11th that people would come to this and think this is science fiction, it's not going to happen - it's fanciful. That changed in a most tragic way for us because we were working very closely with a number of people in New York after September 11th. But post-September 11th we did realise that the issues had so leapt into the public consciousness that in a sense people would come to listen and it would be more believable for them and the issues would be more real.

    I think that the press coverage, certainly in the UK, has shown that people are taking note of this project and hopefully it will have some benefit in terms of having an impact on policy. We are going to be screening the film to the G7 meeting of health ministers in London in March which will be discussing preparedness and vaccine procurement. So hopefully the film will have a real impact on national and maybe international policy.

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