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The End of the Trail for Smallpox?

Wendy Orent has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and Sciences, journal of the New York Academy of Sciences

At the upper reaches of the U.S. government, a debate is being held on the future of smallpox. In June 1999, the world’s last remaining stocks of variola virus, held for the World Health Organization at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in Novosibirsk, Russia, are slated for the autoclave. There they will be pressure-cooked for a half-hour longer than the 15 minutes needed to destroy them. Smallpox, a virus whose history has left a fatal trail across our own, was eradicated from the wild in 1980. If the destruction lobby prevails, it will be the first living species we have deliberately tried to drive into extinction

But in a series of recent articles and interviews, Dr. Ken Alibek, a former Soviet biowarfare expert who defected in 1992, discloses what U.S. intelligence has long known: Destruction of the virus may not be so easy. The Soviet biowarfare apparatus considered smallpox their No. 1 strategic weapon. They aerosolized it, weaponized it, grew it by the ton. Despite Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin’s 1992 declaration that he would shut down the Russian biological warfare program, ambitious, double-edged research with smallpox continues today.

Many of the authorities I have interviewed will not speak publicly, as they are reluctant to jeopardize their security clearances. But two intelligence officers independently confirmed that the Russians have not kept the virus to themselves. In defiance of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which the Soviets signed in 1972, stocks of variola virus have been passed to North Korea and, perhaps, to other states as well.

Despite what we know about the proliferation of smallpox, the World Health Organization still intends to destroy the viral stocks in 1999. It is as if there are two histories of smallpox, the official and the secret, and, though the truth is flooding out, the official history has a life of its own.

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To debate “destruction” at this point seems moot. Smallpox may have vanished from the wild, but it thrives in captivity: It’s been passed from fermenter to fermenter, country to country. Destruction advocates speak as if the prisoner were still walled in glass. They speak as if Russia, which invested so much in smallpox research and production, would willingly show up for the autoclaving with its entire stock of virus. They speak as if there is little likelihood that the virus could exist outside Novosibirsk and the Centers for Disease Control.

There are powerful medical and scientific reasons for keeping the virus. Nobel laureate Dr. Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller University and Dr. Alan P. Zelicoff of Sandia National Laboratories insist that the live virus has a great deal to teach us about the workings of the human immune system, which it can outmaneuver in singular ways. Merely knowing the sequence of viral genes cannot teach us how the virus operates in the human body, or why it appears to have incorporated genes from our immune system into its genetic makeup.

But the scientific arguments are only part of the picture. The fact of proliferation, and the real grounds we have to distrust Russian intent, are equally cogent reasons to preserve the virus.

The Russian record of deceit in biowarfare is established. After signing the Biological Weapons Convention treaty in 1972, the Soviets soon set about violating it, creating a network of biowarfare research labs known as Biopreparat. The WHO designated the Moscow Institute for Viral Preparations as one repository for the smallpox stocks (the other is the CDC). But a U.S. researcher who visited the Biopreparat laboratory at Novosibirsk in Siberia in the mid-1980s learned that scientists there were working with the virus. A later observer, Dr. Frank J. Malinoski, places smallpox at Novosibirsk by 1991. But the World Health Organization did not grant Russia permission to move the stocks from Moscow until 1994.

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Moreover, Alibek says the Soviet weaponization of smallpox long predated its arrival in Novosibirsk. Researchers at a secret military laboratory, known as Sergiyev Posad in Zagorsk, began weaponizing smallpox in the 1960s and continued at least through the ‘80s. This means the supply of virus has never been contained in Russia.

Destruction mythology suggests that, apart from joint CDC-Russian sequencing work, the virus has languished for 18 years in serene isolation. But Soviet biowarriors and their Russian counterparts--often the same people--have actually been very busy. Dr. Lev S. Sandakchiev (who once ran the Soviet viral biowarfare program at Novosibirsk) and his colleague Sergei N. Shchelkunov, in particular, tried to ferret out the “virulence factors” from the smallpox virus, to determine why the human vaccine virus, vaccinia, gives you a little pustule and 10 years of immunity, while smallpox kills you or disfigures you for life.

This isn’t necessarily malignant--such research can teach us a great deal about human immune function. But other work is less ambiguous. A senior U.S. government analyst reports that a “blue border” document--meaning it can only be read by those with a high security clearance, in a special room in Washington--prepared a few years ago indicates, based on eyewitness accounts, that Russians have produced, weaponized and tested on prisoners vaccine-resistant strains.

Furthermore, the official closing of Russian biowarfare research at Biopreparat institutes threatens the livelihood of Russian scientists once involved in such research. U.S. experts, including Lederberg, Zelicoff and Dr. Peter B. Jahrling of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, insist the United States must offer Russian scientists an alternative to selling their expertise on the open market. Recent U.S. initiatives support greater cooperation between Russian and U.S. scientists, to break down barriers of distrust and to show Russian scientists, as Lederberg says, that you can make a living doing ethical research.

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Joint projects between U.S. Department of Energy workers and Russian scientists at Biopreparat sites, for example, suggest that cooperation isn’t an idle dream--though ministry of defense labs remain inaccessible. But forcing the Russians into the charade of destruction means forcing them back into the darkness. “They will not do it,” a former senior analyst insists. “We’ll be making a monkey of ourselves in the eyes of our potential enemies. The worst thing we can do is deceive ourselves that the smallpox threat is gone.”

As for North Korea, and other states that may hold illicit stocks, the destruction initiative only strengthens their hand. “It’s like that slogan of the NRA,” says Jahrling. “ ‘When smallpox is outlawed, only outlaws will have smallpox.’ ” Destruction advocates have strong support in the administration. In some Beltway circles, destruction is politically correct--it’s seen as the logical culmination of the eradication campaign. But, as one administration source puts it, some Defense Department officials are “armed for bear.” They view the destruction campaign as a dangerous folly. So they’ve stopped the clock: An official government decision, set for April 30, was postponed until the National Academy of Sciences holds a symposium on destruction, probably in the fall.

It’s difficult to know whether destruction advocates are cynical or deluded. Alibek’s recent revelations on smallpox are no surprise to the intelligence community, which has known about smallpox weaponization before the destruction debates began in 1993. The mystery is why the public has been led to believe that something that’s been weaponized, proliferated and cultivated can be wiped out by decision, edict or ceremonial burning.*


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