A pox on scientific debate

Why is a BBC drama about 'smallpox terrorism' being taken so seriously by health experts, commentators and public bodies?

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

The BBC ‘drama-documentary’ Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon (1) – a drama about an evil bioterrorist unleashing a smallpox epidemic on an unsuspecting world – will hit UK TV screens tonight (5 February 2002).

Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon is the latest in a series of post-11 September apocalyptic dramas to be shown on TV. As well as working for spiked, I do some work as a TV critic – and in the weeks after 11 September I found myself reviewing a variety of B-movies about the end of the world that had suddenly been revived for TV. But unlike your average apocalyptic film, Smallpox 2002 is new – and is being taken very seriously indeed.

The film features a mixture of actors and real-life figures playing themselves, including former director of the Soviet biological weapons development program Ken Alibek, and was made with the cooperation of several public institutions, including the New York City Office of Emergency Management (2). It has provoked debate among scientists about the likelihood of a smallpox outbreak, among commentators about man’s vulnerability in an out-of-control world, and is even being screened at a G7 conference of health ministers later this year (3).

Smallpox 2002 has been blessed with great timing. Production on the film started in February 2001 – but in the wake of 11 September, the film was updated to incorporate references to the anthrax panic (4), and is now making a far bigger impact than it might have done in pre-11 September times.

Smallpox 2002 has a number of post-11 September references – including the decision of an international panel of scientists not to destroy the world’s remaining samples of the smallpox virus, so that future vaccines could be developed in the event of bioterrorism (5), and the recent stockpiling of three million doses of smallpox vaccine by the US government (6). The filmmakers themselves have hit the headlines, voicing concerns that Britain’s current stocks of smallpox vaccine are only enough to treat a fifth of the population (7).

The message of the film is clear: be afraid. Within the first few minutes, the head of the FBI’s New York office tells us that ‘we used to believe that the greatest threat to the United States was a nuclear arsenal’, but ‘the greatest threat, as we now know, to our lives and security, is a single individual with a $50 chemistry set and the will to decimate the planet’. And such scaremongering seems to have had the intended effect.

David Chater of The Times (London) called the film ‘one of the most devastating pieces of television in recent memory’ (8), while the Guardian’s Mark Lawson claimed that ‘viewing a preview cassette, I had to fight the urge to press the pause button and take to the internet in search of black-market smallpox vaccines for my children’ (9). The Mirror published an article about Smallpox 2002 simply entitled ‘The most terrifying TV you’ll ever watch’, under the hysterical heading ‘Exclusive: how virus horror could engulf world’ (10).

Is there really any likelihood of a bioterrorist getting his hands on some smallpox and infecting tens of millions of people? Not according to leading scientists. Professor Harry Smith of the UK Royal Society working group on biological weapons, Steve Milloy of the Cato Institute and John Eldridge of Jane’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence have all attacked the programme as ‘alarmist’ (11).

But the resonance of Smallpox 2002 has less to do with the facts (or lack of them) of bioterrorism, and more to do with how it captures our post-11 September mood and fears. It depicts a world where random people commit acts of terrorism with no political motivation, and where our (contagious) fellow men or women pose a bigger threat than anything from The Powers That Be – as illustrated when three rough types in the film lock an infected woman into her apartment by nailing her door shut, for fear of contagion.

But for me, the most depressing part of the film is when the armed forces start enforcing curfews, and a director of public health says, ‘It’s not ideal. In an ideal world, we believe in civil liberties and free movement of people. That’s just what this disease wanted – free movement of people’. This assumption that everything, even our civil liberties, should be sacrificed in the name of safety has been all too prevalent since 11 September (12) – and the film’s central theme reinforces that assumption.

Shortly before the screening of Smallpox 2002 came the announcement that The X-Files is to be cancelled (13). It looks like the conspiracy theories of The X-Files – all aliens, cover-ups and cops – have been replaced by a fear of arbitrary, unpredictable threats. So the FBI in Smallpox 2002 discovers that the smallpox virus originated in a Soviet weapons lab during the Cold War (boo, hiss!), but is unable to explain the motives of the bioterrorist, saying only that ‘Islam does not have the monopoly on fanaticism. Look at the group in Japan, the release of sarin gas in the Tokyo subways in 1995. Look at our very own dear Timothy McVeigh’. The closest the FBI gets to a motive for the smallpox attack is an apocalyptic Biblical passage left behind by the terrorist.

Smallpox 2002 teaches us little but panics us a lot. When US postal officials issue anthrax warnings to Americans, saying ‘Look at your neighbour and see if he fits the profile’, while the US State Department warns everybody to be on the lookout for suspicious types (14), we seem to have moved from The X-Files’ message ‘Trust no one’ to ‘Fear everybody’. The G7 conference of health ministers might be better informed if they watched reruns of the X-Files.

Read on:

Anthraxiety, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

The fear within, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Fear and defeatism infect the West, by Mick Hume

Over-anxious over anthrax, by Howard Fienberg

spiked-issue: After 11 September

Don’t Panic Button

(1) See the Smallpox 2002 section of the BBC website

(2) See Smallpox: from eradication to re-emergence, on the Smallpox 2002 section of the BBC website

(3) See TV film shows how nightmare of biological terror could become reality, Matt Wells, Guardian, 30 January 2002

(4) See Smallpox made real by BBC drama, BBC News Online, 30 January 2002

(5) See How terrorism prevented smallpox being wiped off the face of the planet for ever, Steve Connor, Independent, 3 January 2002

(6) See US builds stock of radiation drugs, Leo Lewis, Independent, 6 January 2002

(7) See Could the UK cope with smallpox?, BBC News Online, 4 February 2002

(8) Pick of the week: Smallpox 2002, David Chater, The Times, 2 February 2002

(9) A pox on all your houses, Mark Lawson, 4 February 2002

(10) ‘The most terrifying TV you’ll ever watch’, Jenny Johnston, Mirror, 5 February 2002

(11) See BBC smallpox terror drama ‘is alarmist’, Mark Hendersen, The Times, 2 February 2002

(12) See Defend liberty – especially now, by Jennie Bristow, and Online insecurity, by Sandy Starr

(13) See Fall in ratings turns cult show into the Ex-Files, Oliver Burkeman, Guardian, 18 January 2002

(14) See Anthrax reward soars as FBI draws a blank, Oliver Burkeman, 26 January 2002

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Topics Politics


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