The selective ban imposed by the US on the export of vaccines for bird flu and some other common viruses (selective because it is applicable to just a few countries) defies logic, and is a case of mixing politics with common international endeavour for the general good. The countries chosen for the embargo are the likes of North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Syria and Sudan, which are deemed by the US to be sponsors of terrorism. The reason proffered for this action is that they might use the vaccines for biological warfare, but this argument has no logic to back it. The denial of access to vaccines against diseases which honour no international boundaries, can prove dangerous in the event of an epidemic, and the apprehensions about the potential misuse of the vaccines are ill-founded. Widely-held scientific opinion discounts the possibility of bird flu vaccines being genetically altered to craft bio-weapons because they contain inactivated viruses that cannot be regenerated. Besides, since several strains of avian influenza viruses are still present in several pockets of the globe, anyone with nefarious designs can easily use them directly, without having to take the circuitous route of converting the vaccines into organic weapons.
The real objective of the US move, therefore, must be something other than what is stated. Perhaps it is a simple repeat of the Iraq war story—the US does not like a country selected for the ban, and therefore will take hostile action even if there is no logic to support what is done. What is baffling, though, is that the US is not alone in taking irrational decisions on such presumptions. Even Indonesia is known to have been reluctant to share its virus samples with the US, maintaining that laboratories there could use those virus strains to create either biological weapons or vaccines for commercial gain.
Perhaps the US action is provoked quite simply by the fact that there have been cases in the past of biological weapons being developed, and even used—if on a relatively limited scale. But these instances of the wrongful use of vaccines are few, and none were aimed at mass destruction. What needs to be realised is that any pathogenic organism that can be used to harm large numbers of people needs to have certain key attributes that vaccines generally lack. Such organisms need to be lethal and yet able to multiply and disburse in large measures. To be a mass risk, the material should also be communicable from one person to another and should be difficult to counter through medication. That is why the most sought-after organisms for bio-weapons have been very few.
Nevertheless, vigil against any biological misdemeanour is imperative, irrespective of whether it is directed against humans or against animal and plant life. With this end in view, the World Health Assembly, in May 2002, passed a resolution outlining the global public health response to natural occurrence, accidental release or deliberate use of biological and chemical agents that affect health. It contains the details of the action needed for a global alert and response, as well as for preparedness at the international and national levels. Those are far more important than taking counter-productive actions like banning the export of vaccines.
6 months ago