Iraqis 'could turn camel virus into bio-weapon'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Iraqi scientists could turn a smallpox-style disease that infects camels into a deadly weapon, a British researcher says.

Camelpox, a non-lethal disease that causes fever and skin rash in camels, has been found to be so similar to smallpox that only a few changes would be needed in its genetic make-up to create a harmful agent. Such a change could happen naturally or be engineered, New Scientist magazine reports today.

In 1995, Iraq admitted to UN weapons inspectors that it was working with camelpox with a view to using it as a weapon, because its own troops were frequently exposed to the camel virus and would be immune.

The inspectors were dubious about the claim, because camelpox does not cause disease in humans, but they thought Iraq could be using it for research prior to developing a smallpox weapon.

Such fears recently prompted Britain to order £32m worth of smallpox vaccines in a contract awarded to a company run by a Labour Party donor.

Fresh research, though, suggests that camelpox itself could pose a threat. Geoffrey Smith, of Imperial College, London, who sequenced the DNA of a camelpox strain isolated from camels in Iran in 1970, told New Scientist he was surprised how similar the virus was to smallpox. "It could be that only a small set of changes would be necessary for camelpox virus to infect people," he said.

Both viruses come from the same family, known as "orthopox". They have common central DNA structures, used for their replication. The new evidence shows they are also similar towards the ends of their genome, where genes determine what animals they infect, how quickly and with what effect, raising fears camelpox could evolve to infect people.