CIA believes four nations have secret smallpox virus stocks, report says

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Nov 7, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The CIA has good evidence that four nations—Iraq, North Korea, Russia, and France—have secret stores of smallpox virus, according to a Washington Post report based on comments from officials speaking anonymously.

The intelligence agency also thinks that Al Qaida has spent money to acquire biological weapons, but has been more interested in other agents than in smallpox, according to the report, published Nov 5. One official said there was no reason to believe that the organization actually has obtained smallpox virus.

The anonymous officials based their information mainly on a briefing that the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC) prepared last spring.

The CIA has very high-quality evidence that Russia is keeping hidden stocks of the virus, according to the Post report. Russia, which produced tons of the virus as a biological weapon in the Soviet era, holds one of the two internationally authorized smallpox virus supplies at a laboratory in Koltsovo, Siberia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the other stock authorized by the World Health Organization.

Evidence for secret smallpox stocks in France and Iraq was considered good, though not as strong as the evidence for Russia's stocks, according to the story. Officials said France is using the virus for a program that is "defensive in nature."

A spokesman for the French foreign ministry, Bernard Valero, responded to the Post report with a strong denial, according to an Associated Press report. Valero said France "scrupulously respects" its international treaties and therefore does not have any smallpox virus. He said France is doing research on a new-generation smallpox vaccine but is using only "authorized animal samples," which are not harmful to humans.

The Post report cited several pieces of evidence that Iraq is harboring a supply of the virus. These included the discovery of a freeze-drier labeled "smallpox" by a UN weapons inspector in 1995 and the finding of a document in 1997 that listed smallpox as one of the vaccines given to Iraqi troops. In addition, according to the WINPAC report, a former Soviet scientist told US officials that his country transferred smallpox technology to Iraq in the early 1990s.

The CIA report said North Korea has a "longstanding and active biological weapons program," and there is "medium" quality evidence that the program includes smallpox. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Agency reported on Mar 5, 1993, that North Korea was conducting "military-biological research" involving anthrax, cholera, plague, and smallpox, according to the Post story.

The Bush administration has not officially confirmed any details of the Post report. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, quoted in the transcript of a Nov 5 press briefing, said only, "We are concerned that there may be several countries that retain the smallpox virus in contravention of the World Health Organization resolutions" specifying that smallpox virus stocks should be kept only by the CDC and the Russian lab in Kolstsovo.

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