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Last Updated

29 Nov 2002

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 2, 2002.

U.S. likely sent Iraq toxic bugs

by MIKE TONER, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Evidence that the U.S. government once authorized and sent to Iraq germ cultures capable of being used for biological weapons underscores the sometimes fuzzy boundary separating research on public health from that on weapons of mass destruction.

Whether the disease is anthrax, smallpox or West Nile fever, science for the common good as well as evil ultimately depends on ready access to the same bugs.

Details of the potential germ warfare agents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a Virginia biologics company shipped to Iraq in the 1980s are stirring concerns about the country's ability to control the export of deadly germs.

To Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the situation has created "the equivalent of a Betty Crocker cookbook of ingredients that the U.S. allowed Iraq to obtain and that may have been used to concoct biological weapons."

But CDC officials say the shipments, which occurred during a period when the United States viewed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as an ally, are old news -- and part of an essential worldwide exchange of disease-causing bacteria, viruses and fungi.

"We ship over 300 agents to several dozen countries every year," said CDC spokesman Thomas Skinner. "It's important for the CDC to cooperate with international health authorities on research that . . . saves lives. At the same time it's equally important to us to work with the U.S. Commerce Department to see that these organisms don't fall into the wrong hands."

As with other exports, the Commerce Department has a list of countries and germs that are restricted in international trade. Iraq wasn't on the list of countries in the 1980s, but it is today, along with Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba.

Because potentially deadly cultures could be reshipped for illicit use to a third country, the Commerce Department also lists dozens of possible bio-warfare agents -- including anthrax, smallpox, botulinum toxin and hemorrhagic fevers -- that require government approval before they can be exported at all.

Byrd says even tighter controls are needed to guard against a future in which "today's friend may be tomorrow's enemy."

CDC officials said absolute assurance that biological materials won't be misused is probably not possible.

Bugs for good and evil

Even within the United States, compartmentalizing medical and weapons research has not been entirely successful. The strain of microbe responsible for last year's anthrax-by-mail attacks closely matches one used by a number of U.S. research institutions -- including the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Md.

In the case of Iraq, Byrd says at least 11 shipments -- a "witches brew of pathogens including anthrax, botulinum toxin and gangrene," came from the American Type Culture Collection, a nonprofit firm in Manassas, Va., that has supplied biological cultures and products for global research since 1925.

The company's products, including nearly 18,000 strains of bacteria and more than 2,000 viruses, can be ordered by fax, phone or online from the firm's Web site.

In a tersely worded statement Tuesday, company spokeswoman Nancy Wysocki dismissed the controversy as "old news" that surfaced in congressional hearings in 1993.

"The Department of Commerce approved all requests for shipments of biological samples by Iraq," Wysocki said, adding that the firm's shipments currently comply with all government regulations.

"As a global biological resources center, the American Type Culture Collection's mission is to provide resources to scientists in medicine, public health, industry and education," she said.

Between 1985 and 1988, the Commerce Department approved export licenses for more than 110 shipments of biological materials. The timing of the shipments coincides with the period during which Iraqi scientists turned from studying literature on biological weapons experiments to working with actual samples of anthrax and botulinum toxin.

The Bush administration's charges that Iraq is developing biological weapons have revived congressional interest in how and where the country got the raw materials.

Byrd doesn't contend that the government deliberately approved the shipment of potential seed stock for biological weapons. "It was simply a matter of business as usual, I suppose," he said.

Now, however, he said the risks of lax export controls are apparent. "We not only know that Iraq has biological weapons, we know the type, strain, and the batch number of the germs that may have been used to fashion these weapons," he said. "We know the dates they were shipped and the addresses to which they were shipped."

CDC verified shipments

In a response to a congressional inquiry in 1993, former CDC Director David Satcher acknowledged eight shipments of "viruses, retroviruses, bacteria and fungi" from the agency's laboratories in Atlanta to researchers in Iraq.

Destinations for the CDC shipments included the Iraqi Ministry of Health in Baghdad, the University of Baghdad -- later identified by U.N. weapons inspectors as a front for the acquisition of biological weapons samples -- and at least one researcher in Al-Muthanna, a site 40 miles south of Baghdad that has the nucleus of Iraq's chemical weapons program.

Several months later, Satcher reported that the CDC had also discovered that additional cultures -- including the germ that causes dengue fever and a non-virulent strain of the bug that causes plague -- were hand-carried to Iraq in May 1985 by Dr. Mahammad Mahmud, a doctor who had just finished three months of research on mosquito-borne viruses at the CDC.

Of the dozens of approved biological materials shipped to Iraq by the government and corporate sources, a 1992 Defense Department report to Congress identified five so-called Class III pathogens as being of particular concern:

Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacterium whose finely powdered spores killed five people and sickened 17 others in the United States last year in the country's first brush with biological terrorism.

Clostridium botulinum, the bacterial source of a toxin that can cause vomiting, fever, partial paralysis and is often fatal.

Histoplasma capsulatum, which causes a disease that afflicts the liver and spleen and at least superficially resembles tuberculosis.

Brucella melitensis, a bacteria that causes chronic fatigue, nausea and damage to major organs.

Clostridium perfringens, a highly toxic bacteria that causes gas gangrene.

Although the United States has increased the number of biological agents and countries on its restricted export list since the Gulf War, the Bush administration has balked at efforts to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which bans the development and stockpiling of germ warfare agents.

The treaty has been signed by 164 nations, including the United States and Iraq.

Over the objections of European allies, however, the State Department in July withdrew from negotiations to strengthen the treaty on the grounds that the proposed inspection system was ineffectual and measures to assure the compliance of rogue nations such as Iraq would not be legally binding.

U.S. officials have indicated they plan no further discussion on the treaty until 2006 to give them time to consider alternate means of enforcement.