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Russia: U.S. Report Sheds New Light On Soviet Smallpox Outbreak

  • Kathleen Moore

Experts in the U.S. have presented research they say strongly suggests a 1971 smallpox outbreak in the Soviet Union that killed three people and infected seven others was the result of a biological-weapons field test. It is not the first time the public is hearing of the outbreak, which took place in the Kazakh town of Aralsk. A retired Russian general late last year admitted an accident at a biological-weapons facility on Vozrozhdenie Island in the Aral Sea had caused civilian deaths. But the authors of the U.S. report say this is the first time the incident has been described in detail and given such broad publicity.

Prague, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As usual, the wind across the Aral Sea was blowing from the north that summer's day in 1971. That should not have caused a problem for the Soviet research boat cruising the sea to investigate the Aral's dwindling fish stocks. But unfortunately for one of the researchers on board, the boat strayed too close to the southern end of Vozrozhdenie Island, one of the Soviet Union's main biological-weapons testing grounds.

When the boat docked in Aralsk that August, in addition to fish and plankton samples, it brought ashore a much deadlier cargo: the smallpox virus, which would lead to the first outbreak of the disease in the Soviet Union in a decade.

Ray Zilinskas of California's Monterey Institute of International Studies is one of the co-authors of a report on the Aralsk incident presented this weekend at a Washington seminar on smallpox vaccination policy. "The first victim was a young woman, at that time a very young woman, who was working as a technician on a research vessel that was doing an investigation on the ecological situation of the Aral Sea. So it was cruising south of Vozrozhdenie Island at the end of July and we believe that at that time she was exposed to an aerosol that was released over Vozrozhdenie Island, which was about 15 kilometers away from the ship. When she then returned to her home in Aralsk she came down with symptoms of smallpox. And then she passed it on to the second patient, who was her 9-year-old brother. The brother also, of course, became rather sick, but both of them survived," Zilinskas said.

Three others -- two babies, and the boy's teacher -- didn't. They died of hemorraghic smallpox, a particularly virulent form of the disease in which the victim bleeds from various orifices. In all, 10 people became ill with smallpox. The seven who survived, including the female researcher and her brother, had received smallpox vaccinations years earlier, while the three who died had not. The town was closed and trains on the Alma-Ata-Moscow route were prevented from stopping in Aralsk in what is now Kazakhstan. Mass vaccinations and quarantines followed.

Smallpox was still occurring naturally in the 1970s and it would be another nine years before the World Health Organization declared it eradicated. But the Monterey Institute's researchers say evidence in the Aralsk case points strongly not to a natural outbreak or lab accident but to the testing of a smallpox biological weapon on Vozrozhdenie.

They point to several disturbing aspects of the incident, not least the field testing of what was once one of the world's most devastating viruses. If the germs were airborne, which the Monterrey researchers suggest they were, it means they were disseminated as an aerosol, which makes them a deadlier foe. And the fact that some of those struck by the virus had already been vaccinated suggests, though not necessarily proves, that the smallpox used was of a particularly virulent strain.

To be sure, the report by Zilinskas and his colleagues Alan Zelicoff and Jonathan Tucker is not completely fresh news. Retired General Petr Burgasov, once a top figure in the Soviet Union's bioweapons program, admitted in the "Moscow News" paper late last year that a smallpox test -- he did not specify a year -- had caused an unidentified number of civilian deaths. But Zilinskas said this is the first open publication of documents relating to the incident.

"They were testing a strong strain of smallpox," Burgasov is quoted as saying in the "Moscow News" interview, which the Monterrey researchers cite in their report. "Suddenly I'm told that there are some unexplained deaths in Aralsk. A research boat had gone within 15 kilometers of the island [it was banned from going closer than 40]; a woman laboratory technician went twice a day on land to take plankton samples. The smallpox agent -- and on the island all of 400 grams of the strain was used -- 'got' her."

Burgasov said he guessed at the causes of the outbreak and had it contained before calling Yurii Andropov, then head of the KGB. "I told [Andropov] that an exceptional strain of smallpox had been obtained on Vozrozhdenie. He ordered me not to say another word about it," Burgasov said.

Kanatjan Alibekov was one of the top scientists in the Soviet Union's bioweapons program in the 1980s. He led the research team that developed the world's most powerful weapons-grade anthrax and was in charge of a special project to develop a new smallpox weapon. It's all described in "Biohazard," the book he wrote after defecting to the United States in 1992. Now known as Ken Alibek, he is president of a company that researches and develops defenses against biological weapons and treatment of potential outbreaks.

Alibek said the report confirms what he already knew but could not print, as it was hearsay. "It's not circumstantial. It's obvious because of two reasons. First, I've heard about these tests. When they came in the 1970s and 1980s I heard from some people that smallpox was tested on Vozrozhdenie Island. Second, there was an actual interview given by a former general who was one of the leaders of this program, General Burgasov, and he [gave an] interview to one of the Russian newspapers -- probably it was November or December 2001 -- and he confirmed this case was a test," Alibek said.

Alibek's research in the late 1980s also involved an aerosol form of smallpox, but that test was conducted in a chamber, not in the open air. He said the Vozrozhdenie Island facility conducted field tests of other germs, such as plague, anthrax, and brucellosis, every year from April to November. And he noted that on at least one other occasion there were civilian deaths in the area.

Zilinskas said his team's report is based on previously secret documents given to them by the Kazakh Scientific Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases. It is also based on interviews with two survivors, the woman and her younger brother.

He acknowledged the data is patchy, but said the "airborne germs" theory is the most logical explanation of how the woman became infected. And he dismissed suggestions by skeptics that it could have been a natural outbreak that traveled from Afghanistan. "The problem with that explanation is that there were no other cases in between. In other words, in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan or any of these other countries you'd have to transverse in order to get to Aralsk. And there were no other outbreaks at that time anywhere else in the neighborhood. So you must have a good explanation and the only good explanation is that this testing was done on Vozrozhdenie Island," Zilinskas said.

The report comes just months after anthrax-spiked letters killed several people in the U.S. and stoked fears that terrorists could use other deadly germs in a biological attack.

Alastair Hay is a toxicologist at Leeds University in the U.K. with a special interest in chemical and biological warfare. He said an attack using airborne germs would make it harder to fight and contain. "The traditional ways of dealing with smallpox are based on the fact that it is a person-to-person contact that you're concerned about. If there was any opportunity of spreading something through the air, then the potential to infect a large number of people in one go is obviously there and when those people become infected and subsequently infect others you're starting from a much greater pool of infection than would occur if it had just started with an isolated case," Hay said.

The virus is still officially stocked in two sites, one in the U.S. and the other in Novosibirsk in Russia. But as Alibek noted, there are other, more likely sources of a smallpox threat. Though there is no evidence that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has managed to turn smallpox into a weapon, his scientists are known to have experimented with various pox viruses.

This threat is what prompted experts in the U.S. to debate whether to relaunch wide-scale vaccination 30 years after it was discontinued, which was the subject of the Washington seminar at which the Aralsk report was presented.

Alibek said it should at least be discussed. But Hay argued that it's not a clear-cut issue, and that the current vaccines can have strong side effects.

Still, Zilinskas said action is needed now to improve the existing stocks, in case they are not effective against all smallpox strains. That, he said, is a long-term process that could take five or 10 years.