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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Smallpox: A Deadly Shell Game

Janet Phelan

The recent announcement by the WHO that it was postponing a decision on destroying the remaining smallpox depositories—one allegedly in Russia at VECTOR and the other in the United States at the CDC—may not have been prompted by what the press has termed a difference of opinion between research groups. In fact, the WHO may have no idea how many labs actually possess the deadly variola virus. 

As widely reported, WHO's advisory committee on variola virus research (ACVVR), felt that the stocks should be maintained, as the live virus was still needed to develop antiviral drugs. 

On the opposing side, the WHO's advisory group of independent experts to review the smallpox research programme (AGIES) was reported as believing that there was no research justification for holding on to the stocks. 

Smallpox has killed over 500 million people in the twentieth century. A sustained global effort at vaccination resulted in the declaration, in 1980, that the world had been ridded of the deadly disease. 

However, other considerations besides research protocols may be playing into the reluctance of the WHO to announce the destruction of what it terms the remaining stockpiles of smallpox. 


There may, in fact, be far more remaining stockpiles than the WHO has copped to. Case in point is a BSL-3 in Arizona, which has been working on smallpox countermeasures for some time now. In order to create a countermeasure, a lab must have supplies of the disease agent on hand. How is it that the WHO and the CDC “forgot” about the Arizona lab? And how is it that the head of the lab, who was formerly with the CIA, is now denying that his lab possesses the virus, while continuing to tout its work on smallpox countermeasures? 

Concerns ramp up when one considers the recent incident, widely reported in the news, where scientists stumbled upon live vials of smallpox, previously unaccounted for, in an unused storeroom in a NIH lab in Bethesda, Maryland. This find effectively negates the WHO's pronouncement on the whereabouts of the remaining samples. 

In addition, there were reports in May of this year of the emergence of a smallpox-type disease in the Republic of Georgia, which also raises questions as to the alleged eradication of the disease

Adding more variables (or variola) to the equation is the fact that, after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, many of the USSR’s biological weapons scientists ended up out of work and were subsequently lured elsewhere, with promises of high paying jobs in other countries. While some of the scientists, such as Victor Pasechnik and Ken Alibek, defected to the US, others reportedly went to work for various Middle Eastern countries. Conditions under which these scientists were recruited make it likely they were able to bring disease cultures with them to their new employ. 

Indeed, following the breakup of the South African apartheid government in the 1990s, concerns were running high that the head of the biological and chemical weapons programme, Dr. Wouter Basson, might well end up peddling his expertise and bugs abroad. Nelson Mandela's new government was so impressed by these concerns that Mandela was persuaded to re-hire Basson, so as to keep tabs on him. Basson had allegedly been involved in the murder of a number of ANC officials, as well as purportedly developing a blacks-only bioweapon. This bizarre arrangement between Mandela and Basson was fairly shortlived, as Basson was subsequently arrested in 1997. Many of the South African BW and CW stockpiles were unaccounted for at the time of the change in government. 


In a continuing public relations nightmare for the CDC, there were several back-to-back accidents in the same time period as the discovery of the smallpox vials in Maryland. In June of this year, at least 62 CDC employees were reported exposed to live anthrax bacteria after potentially infectious samples were sent to labs which did not have the security protocols in place to handle anthrax. 

And then in July, it was reported that the CDC accidentally contaminated a benign flu virus with a highly virulent one. This error resulted in the closure of two CDC-related labs. 

In fact, the CDC is even having trouble accounting for the whereabouts of its labs. During a 2011 interview conducted by this reporter with Lori Bane, Associate Director for Policy with the CDC Division of Select Agents and Toxins and Von Roebuck, CDC Public Affairs officer, the two stated that there were only about 250 BSL-3s and six BSL-4s in the United States. In reality, the number of level 3 labs exceeded 1350 at that time and the number of BSL-4s was at least three times the number reported by the CDC

That the WHO is stalling on issuing a directive to destroy the two reported smallpox repositories may be due to the international body being painfully aware that smallpox is not restricted to these two locations. It might be accurate to state that the WHO has no idea how many stockpiles remain, and is stalling due to its knowledge that it cannot destroy what it cannot locate. The change in the US’s domestic biological weapons legislation in 2001, via Section 817 of the USA PATRIOT Act, may have given the United States leverage to become the biological weapons dealers of the world. If that is the case, then the WHO may be putting its collective head onto a chopping block by announcing the destruction of what it cannot in any likelihood control or even locate. 

Janet C. Phelan, investigative journalist and human rights defender that has traveled pretty extensively over the Asian region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”, where this first appeared

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