Smallpox in Iraq?
CIA Investigates Allegations that Soviet Scientist Transferred Virus to Iraq
By Brian Ross
ABCNEWS.com - Dec. 3
— American intelligence officials are investigating whether a Russian scientist transferred a particularly lethal strain of smallpox to the government of Iraq in the 1990s, ABCNEWS has confirmed.
As first reported in The New York Times, the allegations involve a smallpox strain stored at the Research Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow.
Intelligence officials say an informant has reported the institute's late director, virologist Nelja Maltseva, moved the smallpox on a trip to Iraq in 1990.
"Maltseva had access to the entire collection, in all probability, of the Russian strains of small pox — at least a hundred," said Dr. Alan Selikoff, a scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.
The collection includes an especially deadly strain of smallpox involved in an outbreak 30 years ago in the remote Kazakhstan city of Aralsk.
Selikoff, who first revealed the Aralsk outbreak earlier this year, says it's possible that strain is also resistant to known vaccines. Even if a vaccine were available, it would not stop the spread of this rare strain of smallpox, but Selikoff said it would help limit the number of deaths.
"It raises the specter of the transfer of the disease to the Iraqi government that might cause more problems than the garden-variety smallpox would if it were ever introduced into the open again," said Selikoff.
Concern of Possible Attack
In fact, Selikoff's research suggests the Aralsk smallpox strain could be easily spread by missile, in the air across wide areas — something not previously thought possible.
"Smallpox in the hands of Saddam Hussein is a great concern and obviously a more virulent strain is of even more concern," Rep. Chris Shays, D-Conn., told ABCNEWS.
In the last few months, Israeli officials and emergency workers have begun a rush smallpox vaccination program, based on fears they are in the range of Iraqi Scud missiles.
In the United States, government scientists say the new allegations involving Iraq and smallpox raise the stakes for President Bush, who must soon decide on the scale of a smallpox vaccination program here.
A federal plan being considered would offer the inoculation first to emergency workers, who would be most likely to come in contact with a contagious smallpox patient.
Florida's Orange County Sheriff's Office is the first law-enforcement agency in the United States to offer all of its deputies the opportunity to be vaccinated against smallpox.