C.I.A. HUNTS IRAQ TIE TO SOVIET SMALLPOX



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Last Updated

03 Dec 2002

Source: New York Times, December 3, 2002.

GERM WEAPONS

C.I.A. Hunts Iraq Tie to Soviet Smallpox

By JUDITH MILLER

The C.I.A. is investigating an informant's accusation that Iraq obtained a particularly virulent strain of smallpox from a Russian scientist who worked in a smallpox lab in Moscow during Soviet times, senior American officials and foreign scientists say.

The officials said several American scientists were told in August that Iraq might have obtained the mysterious strain from Nelja N. Maltseva, a virologist who worked for more than 30 years at the Research Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow before her death two years ago.

The information came to the American government from an informant whose identity has not been disclosed. The C.I.A. considered the information reliable enough that President Bush was briefed about its implications. The attempt to verify the information is continuing.

Dr. Maltseva is known to have visited Iraq on several occasions. Intelligence officials are trying to determine whether, as the informant told them, she traveled there as recently as 1990, officials said. The institute where she worked housed what Russia said was its entire national collection of 120 strains of smallpox, and some experts fear that she may have provided the Iraqis with a version that could be resistant to vaccines and could be more easily transmitted as a biological weapon.

The possibility that Iraq possesses this strain is one of several factors that has complicated Mr. Bush's decision, expected this week, about how many Americans should be vaccinated against smallpox, a disease that was officially eradicated in 1980.

The White House is expected to announce that despite the risk of vaccine-induced illness and death, it will authorize vaccinating those most at risk in the event of a smallpox outbreak 500,000 members of the military who could be assigned to the Middle East for a war with Iraq and 500,000 civilian medical workers.

More broadly, the Russian government's refusal to share smallpox and other lethal germ strains for study by the United States, or to answer questions about the fate of such strains, has reinforced American concerns about whether Russia has abandoned what was once the world's most ambitious covert germ weapons program.

A year ago in Crawford, Tex., Mr. Bush and Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, issued a statement vowing to enhance cooperation against biological terrorism. But after an initial round of visits and a flurry of optimism, American officials said Russia had resisted repeated American requests for information about the Russian smallpox strains and help in the investigation into the anthrax attacks in the United States in October 2001.

"There is information we would like the Russians to share as a partner of ours," William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said in an interview. "Because if there are strains that present a unique problem with respect to vaccines and treatment, it is in the interests of all freedom-loving people to have as much information as possible."

Cooperation on biological terrorism was not discussed at the meeting last week between Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg, American officials said, mainly because administration officials are not certain just how willing Mr. Putin is to enhance cooperation in this delicate area. They wonder if he is not doing more because of the military's hostility to sharing the information.

"The record so far suggests he is either unable or unwilling to push the military on this front," an administration official said. "We think it may be a little of both, but we're not really sure at this point or what to do about it."

Administration officials said the C.I.A. was still trying to determine whether Dr. Maltseva traveled to Iraq in 1990, and whether she shared a sample of what might be a particularly virulent smallpox strain with Iraqi scientists.

World Health Organization records in Geneva and interviews with scientists who worked with her confirmed that Dr. Maltseva visited Iraq at least twice, in 1972 and 1973, as part of the global campaign to eradicate smallpox.

Formerly secret Soviet records also show that in 1971, she was part of a covert mission to Aralsk, a port city in what was then the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, north of the Aral Sea, to help stop an epidemic of smallpox. The Soviet Union did not report that outbreak to world health officials, as required by regulations.

Last June, experts from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, drawing on those Kazakh records and interviews with survivors, published a report saying the epidemic was a result of open-air tests of a particularly virulent smallpox strain on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea.

The island, known as Renaissance Island in English, is between Kazakhstan and another Central Asian country, Uzbekistan. The United States recently spent $6 million to help both countries, which are now independent, to decontaminate anthrax that the Soviet military buried in pits on the island.

Alan P. Zelicoff, co-author of the Monterey report and a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories, said the Aralsk outbreak was a watershed because it demonstrated that the smallpox virus was more easily spread than previously thought and that there may be a vaccine-resistant strain.

The organism can indeed be made to travel long distances, city-size perhaps, and there may be a vaccine-resistant strain or one that is more communicable than garden-variety smallpox, he said in an interview.

The Monterey report led American officials to question whether America's smallpox vaccine would be effective against the Aralsk strain or whether new vaccines or drugs might be needed if the strain was used in an attack. American concern increased in recent months after the White House was told that Dr. Maltseva might have shared the Aralsk strain with Iraqi scientists in 1990, administration officials said.

David Kelly, a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, said there was a "resurgence of interest" in smallpox vaccine in Iraq in 1990, "but we have never known why."

A spokesman for the Russian Research Institute for Viral Preparations declined to comment on Dr. Maltseva or her work. Her daughter, a physician in Moscow, said she had no recollection of her mother's ever going to Iraq.

Svetlana Sergeyevna Marennikova, Dr. Maltseva's deputy in the Moscow laboratory, said in an interview that Dr. Maltseva had never gone to Iraq as far as she knew.

"She worked, and then when she got sick, she took a sick leave when she was no longer able to work," she said. "I don't know about Iraq. I didn't know about a trip there. I don't think she was there. I would know."

Donald A. Henderson, a senior adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services and a leader of the smallpox eradication campaign, described Dr. Maltseva as an "outgoing, hard-working scientist." He said she had traveled widely for the W.H.O in the eradication campaign.

While the organization's records show that she visited Iran, Iraq and Syria, Dr. Henderson recalled that he had also sent her to Pakistan to follow up on an outbreak there. "She clearly enjoyed the international travel circuit," he said.

Scientists and American officials have speculated that Iraq may have tried to buy the Aralsk strain from Dr. Maltseva, whose institute, like so many other scientific labs in Russia, has fallen on hard times since the Soviet Union's collapse.

Dr. Henderson said he was deeply disappointed that Dr. Maltseva and other Russian scientists with whom he had worked closely had helped cover up outbreaks of infectious diseases that should have been reported to the W.H.O.

The Russian government has never publicly acknowledged that Aralsk outbreak or that it tested smallpox in the open air. At a World Health Organization meeting in Lyon, France, last August, officials said, Russian virologists argued privately, in response to the Monterey report and news accounts, that there was no reason to believe that the Aralsk incident was anything other than a natural outbreak and that the strain was not particularly virulent assertions with which some American experts concur.

American officials familiar with discussions about Aralsk said Russians scientists had confirmed that Dr. Maltseva took tissue samples from Aralsk back to her Moscow lab in 1971. But Russians have insisted that the material was destroyed when Russia quietly moved its smallpox strain collection from the Moscow lab to Vector, where the collection is now stored.

Many American scientists and officials, even those who doubt that the Aralsk strain is unusually potent, are deeply skeptical that the strain was destroyed. Former Soviet germ warfare scientists have privately told American officials that the military took control of these strains when the collection was moved.

American health and defense officials have tried without success to press Russia for help in securing a sample of the strain from the Aralsk smallpox outbreak.

The American officials have also been unable to obtain information that they believe could help federal investigators with their stalled inquiry into the anthrax attacks of October 2001, in which 5 people died and at least 17 were infected.