- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002


U.S. intelligence has concluded that four foreign nations, including Iraq and North Korea, probably possess hidden samples of the smallpox virus, a U.S. official said yesterday.

The al Qaeda terrorist group is also believed to have sought samples of smallpox for weaponization, but U.S. officials don't believe Osama bin Laden's terrorist network is capable of mounting an attack with smallpox.

Evidence recovered in Afghanistan pointed to bin Laden's interest in the disease, the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The other two suspected nations are Russia and France.

U.S. officials worry that Iraq and North Korea could develop potent biological weapons with their samples, and Russian laxity could let other nations obtain the deadly disease for use as a weapon.

Smallpox kills about one-third of its victims and can be transmitted from person to person, unlike other biological weapons such as anthrax.

Many experts suspected North Korea had samples of the smallpox virus. A Russian intelligence report made public in 1993 accused Pyongyang of having a smallpox weapon, though that has not been publicly corroborated. A declassified U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report from May 1994 also quotes an unnamed source saying Russian scientists gave North Korea smallpox samples.

Before 1998, U.N. weapons inspectors discovered limited evidence of a smallpox program in Iraq. They found a machine labeled "smallpox" and evidence of Iraq's experimenting with a related virus that infects camels.

Russia maintains acknowledged samples of the virus, as does the United States. But Ken Alibek, a former top scientist in the Soviet biological weapons program who came to the United States in 1992, claimed the Soviets covertly developed smallpox as a weapon in the 1980s.

The Washington Post, which first reported the intelligence finding on its Web site late yesterday, said France's samples are believed to be for defensive research programs aimed at limiting casualties from a smallpox outbreak.

Routine smallpox vaccination ended in the United States in 1972, and the disease was declared eradicated in 1980. Immunologists believe that those vaccinated have little residual immunity remaining. But routine vaccination would be an awkward decision because the vaccine itself is made with a live virus that can cause the disease.

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