Terrorist smallpox attack on West `could kill millions'

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The Independent Online
A LEADING scientific adviser to the US government has issued a dire warning that Western nations are unprepared for terrorist attacks with biological weapons.

Rogue states and fanatical cults could subvert the biological weapons expertise of the former Soviet Union to unleash bioterror in the West, said Donald Henderson of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefence Studies. Writing in the journal Science, Dr Henderson said that countries are particularly vulnerable to a smallpox attack because the decline in smallpox immunisation has meant that few people are now resistant to the virus.

Dr Henderson, who was instrumental in the global campaign to eradicate smallpox, cited senior sources from the former Soviet Union who have admitted the scale of the Soviet Union's biological weapons capability. "Ken Alibek, a former first deputy chief of research and production for the Russian biological weapons programme, has reported that smallpox virus had been mounted in intercontinental ballistic missiles and in bombs for strategic use," he said.

Many of the biological weapons facilities in Russia have experienced financial hardships since the collapse of the Soviet Union and many experts have left. "Where the scientists have gone is unknown, but Libya, Iran, Syria, Iraq and North Korea have actively been recruiting such expertise," he said. "A mixture of rogue states and well-financed religious cults with scientists desperately seeking funds creates a volatile situation with potentially serious consequences."

Soviet laboratories possessed the expertise to produce the most dangerous microbes in huge quantities and any group with the money could have bought large enough quantities to pose a considerable threat to a large city, Dr Henderson said. "No mechanisms currently exist for screening to intercept such material at state or national borders," he added.

Smallpox poses an unusually serious threat, Dr Henderson said, partly because virtually everyone is now susceptible, with vaccinations ending more than 20 years ago as a result of the global eradication of the disease. "Because of waning immunity, it is probable that no more than 20 per cent of the population is protected. Among the unprotected, case fatality rates after infection with smallpox are 30 per cent," he said.

After an initial outbreak of smallpox caused by a terrorist attack, a second wave of infections would occur as a result of the virus being passed from one person to another. "From experiences with smallpox imported into Europe over the past 40 years, it is estimated that there would be at least 10 secondary cases for every case in the first wave," Dr Henderson said.

A surprise attack would probably fail to elicit the emergency vaccination programme needed to control the further spread of the disease.

"Few physicians have ever seen smallpox and few, if any, have ever received training in its diagnosis. Moreover, there are no longer any manufacturers of smallpox vaccine. Best estimates indicate that substantial additional supplies could not be ensured sooner than 36 months from the initial attack," he said.