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The smallpox scenario

By Unmesh Kher

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As the U.N. and member governments seek to uncover whatever illicit weapons programs Iraq might have, few tasks are as urgent as determining whether Baghdad has obtained the smallpox virus.

The only declared reserves of the 120 known strains of smallpox are in two labs, in the U.S. and Russia, but fears that Iraq may possess the virus have lately come to a head.

Why the suspicions? As the New York Times first reported last week, the CIA is investigating the possibility that a Russian scientist, Nelli Maltseva, ferried a nasty strain of smallpox from the Research Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow to Iraq in 1990. She died two years ago.

The allegation caused quite a kerfuffle in Russia. Maltseva's daughter Natalia, a cardiologist, has threatened to sue the newspaper for having "blackened her mother's reputation." The institute's current director, Vitali Zverev, says the last time Maltseva handled smallpox was in 1982, which was also the last time she traveled abroad--to Finland, not Iraq.

Of course, none of this proves Saddam does not have the smallpox virus--and there's some evidence he does. Eight of 69 Iraqi POWs screened during the Gulf War were immune to smallpox.

Since the vaccine works for only four to five years, this suggests they had been inoculated relatively recently--perhaps as protection from their own biological weapons.

There's more: U.N. inspectors who toured Iraq's illegal weapons sites in 1995 stumbled upon a freeze dryer candidly labeled SMALLPOX. How would it be used?

Probably not via missile--the explosion needed to distribute the virus would at the same time kill most of it, and the rest would not do well in open air and sunlight. In any case, missiles may not be necessary.

The virus spreads so efficiently from person to person that an agent--presumably immunized--with an aerosolized batch of smallpox in a subway station or a small building could easily seed an epidemic.

Because the virus is tiny, it's relatively easy to aerosolize. But there's no evidence that Iraq has developed the capability. Is the U.S. prepared? Spurred on by the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. now has sufficient vaccine to inoculate some 160 million people (out of a population of 280 million)--but only by diluting some existing doses fivefold, which would only happen in an emergency.

Another 209 million doses are on order. President Bush is soon expected to announce one of the largest public health initiatives in decades, making the vaccine available, on a voluntary basis, to 500,000 health-care workers. The vaccine carries risks; for every million people who take it, as many as 52 will develop life-threatening ailments, and roughly two will die.

On the plus side, it is one of the few vaccines that work relatively well even when given a couple of days after exposure. The ill effects pale beside those of smallpox, which kills nearly one-third of those infected.

The Pentagon, for its part, is just waiting for a green light from the Bush Administration, which may come as early as this week, to start vaccinating 500,000 troops. Even so, if U.S. forces were attacked with biological weapons during an invasion, $1.5 million mobile labs mounted in Humvees would detect such agents and alert soldiers, who would then climb into masks and protective suits.

It would be tough going in that gear, especially in the searing heat of summer; just taking a sip of water would be a 17-step process. Of course, that's better than enduring a bout of smallpox. -

-- With reporting by Greg Land/Atlanta, Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow and Mark Thompson/Washington

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