After months of heated debate, our leading public-health officials made a startling announcement last week. The bioterror threat brought home by September 11, and the looming showdown with Iraq, have led them to favor eventually giving all Americans the option to be vaccinated against smallpox. It was only two decades ago that we thought this horrific disease had been eradicated forever, and 30 years since kids stopped receiving routine inoculations. But now the top doctors are recommending a three-phase plan that by 2004 could allow anyone who wanted a smallpox shot to get one.
It was front-page news--but not news to us. Weeks after September 11, we reported that of all the terror threats, smallpox is the scariest, given how lethal it is and how quickly it spreads once a fully contaminated victim comes into contact with other people. And last month, we began digging into the government's emergency plan to treat America within days in the event of a smallpox attack. Debra Rosenberg met with top public-health officials in Washington and came back with details of how cities would be mobilized, health workers immunized and doses diluted to produce more than 300 million shots. But as Geoffrey Cowley makes clear in our cover story, the terror scenario poses grave questions. Will the 55 percent of Americans who were vaccinated before 1972 need to be reinoculated? And what happens to people with conditions, from AIDS to eczema, that make their immune systems too weak to risk dying from the vaccine?
Just how real is the threat of a smallpox attack? Experts still aren't sure if Saddam has smallpox among his weapons of mass destruction. But our lead story, by Christopher Dickey, suggests that if he does, it's likely to be stored in one of the presidential palaces he still insists on keeping off-limits to U.N. inspectors. In another must-read exclusive, an excerpt from historian Michael Beschloss's latest book reveals evidence that FDR may have been personally responsible for the controversial U.S. decision not to bomb German concentration camps in the final year of World War II. And for all you "Sopranos" fans out there, Jonathan Alter, a proud resident of Montclair, N.J., explains the subliminal effect the hit HBO series may have had on the downfall of Democratic Sen. Robert (The Torch) Torricelli.