Skip to comments.Soviet Smallpox Outbreak Report Worries Experts
Posted on 06/15/2002 12:56:15 PM PDT by My Identity
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Experts said on Saturday they were worried by a leaked report that describes an outbreak of smallpox in the Soviet Union -- one they say may point to the testing of a smallpox biological weapon.
Seven people became ill in the 1971 outbreak and three died of what appeared to be the more fatal, and more rare, hemorrhagic form of the infection, said Dr. Alan Zelicoff of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, one of the authors of the report.
"Someone has successfully disseminated smallpox as an aerosol," Zelicoff said in an interview.
"It has been talked about and it has been rumored about but no one has ever actually done it," he added. "It is real, it has happened and it works. We have to live with it."
Zelicoff described the report at a meeting on Saturday of policymakers, bioterrorism experts, emergency response officials and others at the Institute of Medicine in Washington. The experts are helping to put together U.S. policy on whether and when to vaccinate against smallpox.
Smallpox was declared eradicated worldwide as a disease in 1979, but the former Soviet Union, and perhaps other countries, continued to develop the potentially deadly virus as a biological weapon.
Experts are considering whether to vaccinate Americans now that, after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, a biological attack is considered more likely than ever before.
Vaccination in the United States stopped in 1972 and doctors say it is unlikely more than a small fraction of those who were vaccinated have any useful immunity left.
Dr. D.A. Henderson, who led the fight to eradicate smallpox through a global vaccination campaign and who advises the government on bioterrorism issues, said he was not especially worried by the report.
"We do know the Russians were engaged with weaponizing the virus. We do know they were fiddling with the virus," he told the meeting. "I see nothing new."
The outbreak was in Aralsk, a port on the Aral sea in what is now Kazakhstan, Zelicoff said. He says he believes it originated from a field test of a smallpox biological weapon.
FIELD TESTING CITED
"There were a total of three deaths from hemorrhagic disease," he told the meeting. "Anyone who was not vaccinated, that is, the three people, died from the disease," he said.
The others, who had all been vaccinated, contracted smallpox but did not die.
According to the New York Times, which reported on a leaked version of the report in Saturday, it mentions an interview with General Pyotr Burgasov, a former official in the Soviet germ weapons program. He was quoted in November by the Moscow News as saying the outbreak was caused by field testing of 400 grams, or a little less than a pound, of the virus.
The report said at the time, Soviet health officials rushed to contain the outbreak, disinfecting homes, stopping travel to and from the area and vaccinating 50,000 people.
"I've never seen anything quite so disturbing as this," said Zelicoff, who is also a smallpox expert at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.
He said he interviewed one of the survivors, a woman who was on a ship in the Aral Sea at the time of the outbreak. The most likely way she became ill, he said, was through breathing in aerosolized smallpox.
Henderson cast doubt on this but Zelicoff said he has factored in the time smallpox can live in the air, the winds on the Aral Sea, and the fact that no one below deck on the ship became infected.
The United States is working with vaccine makers to produce enough vaccine to cover everyone in the country in case of an outbreak. Henderson said existing stocks of the vaccine could be delivered within 12 hours.
"In the short term I don't think this changes the need for the acquisition of vaccine to cover everyone," Zelicoff said. "All things being equal, look, the vaccine worked pretty well. What it says is that we shouldn't stop here. We almost certainly need to look at antiviral drugs."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said tests were underway on an antiviral drug called tenofovir, now used against a herpes virus, which has shown promise against pox viruses in animals.
He said scientists were developing oral versions of the drug that appear to be even more potent than current intravenous forms.
The US government keeps a list of nations and groups that it suspects either have clandestine stocks of smallpox or seem to be trying to buy or steal the virus. The list is classified, but it is said to include Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Serbia, terrorist organization of Osama bin Laden and, possibly, the Aum Shinrikyo sect of Japan.
Ken Alibek, who was once Kanatjan Alibekov, a leading Soviet bioweaponeer and the inventor of the world's most powerful anthrax, defected, in 1992, and revealed how far the Soviet Union had gone with bioweapons. Alibek says that there were twenty tons of liquid smallpox kept on hand at Soviet military bases.
In 1989, a Soviet biologist named Vladimir Pasechnik defected to Britain. British intelligence spent a year debriefing him. By the end, the British agents felt they had confirmed that the U.S.S.R. had biological missiles aimed at the US. This information reached President George Bush and the British PM Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher then apparently confronted the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. She was furious, and so was Bush. Gorbachev responded by allowing a small, secret team of American and British bioweapons inspectors to tour Soviet biowarfare facilities. In January of 1991, the inspectors travelled across the U.S.S.R., getting whirlwind looks at some of the major clandestine bases of the Soviet biowarfare program, which was called Biopreparat. The inspectors were frightened by what they discovered. ("I would describe it as scary, and I feel a responsibility to tell the world medical community about what I saw, because doctors could face these diseases," said one inspector, Frank Malinoski, M.D., Ph.D.) On January 14th, the team arrived at Vector, the main virology complex, in Siberia, and the next day, they were shown into a laboratory called Building 6, where one of the inspectors, David Kelly, took a technician aside and asked him what virus they had been working with. The technician said that they had been working with smallpox. Kelly repeated the question three times. Three times, he asked the technician, "You mean you were working with Variola major?" and he emphasized to the technician that his answer was very important. The technician responded emphatically that it was Variola major [the killer strain]. Kelly says that his interpreter was the best Russian interpreter the British government has. "There was no ambiguity," Kelly says. The inspectors were stunned. Vector was not supposed to have any smallpox at all, much less be working with it -- a supreme violation of rules set down by the W.H.O.
Per Malinoski: "There were tons of smallpox virus made in the Soviet Union. The Russians admitted that to us. One of the Vector leaders when he said to us, 'Listen, we didn't account for every ampule of the virus. We had large quantities of it on hand. There were plenty of opportunities for staff members to walk away with an ampule. Although we think we know where our formerly employed scientists are, we can't account for all of them-we don't know where all of them are.' " Today, smallpox and its protocols could be anywhere in the world.
Sitting with D. A. Henderson [widely credited with the eradication of smallpox] in his house, I mentioned what seemed to be the great and tragic paradox of his life's work. The eradication caused the human species to lose its immunity to smallpox, and that was what made it possible for the Soviets to turn smallpox into a weapon rivalling the hydrogen bomb.
Henderson responded with silence, and then said thoughtfully, "I feel very sad about this. The eradication never would have succeeded without the Russians. Viktor Zhdanov [who first raised the idea] started it, and they did so much. They were extremely proud of what they had done. I felt the virus was in good hands with the Russians. I never would have suspected. They made twenty tons -- twenty tons -- of smallpox. For us to have come so far with the disease, and now to have to deal with this human creation, when there are so many other problems in the world . . ." He was quiet again. "It's a great letdown," he said.
Immune people are like control rods in a nuclear reactor. The American population has little immunity [the vaccination begins wears off after 10 years], so it's a reactor with no control rods. We could have an uncontrolled smallpox chain reaction." This would be something that terrorism experts refer to as a "soft kill" of the United States of America.
That isn't what it said.
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