Smallpox was eradicated completely in 1980. The only known stocks of the virus that causes smallpox are in carefully guarded laboratories in the U.S. and Russia. Nevertheless, the U.S. government is spending nearly $500 million for about two million doses of smallpox vaccine, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Does this make sense? Well, yes and no. No one knows for sure whether there are unreported stocks of the virus somewhere, and if there are, whether they might fall into the wrong hands. Apparently the U.S. government thinks that it would be prudent to have a stock of smallpox vaccine on hand, just in case the smallpox virus is used someday in a bioterrorism attack.

Only time will tell whether stockpiling smallpox vaccine will prove to be a $500 million waste of money or a lifesaver. But while you’re considering whether you think it’s a good idea, consider this; if there is an outbreak of smallpox some day, who will be able to get the vaccine? Two million doses wouldn’t cover even a quarter of the population of New York City alone. How much of this vaccine should we be stockpiling?

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