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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Interview with Former Weapons Inspector

Aired January 15, 2003 - 14:21   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: As we continue to put all those facts together and tell you what we know, we're joined now by Jonathan Tucker out of Washington, D.C., a bioterror expert.
Jonathan, I guess -- we're trying to put this all into perspective. We started out saying bubonic plague, now we're talking about a bacteria. How much of a threat do you see here, will you give us your insight to what you think as you hear all the facts coming out?

JONATHAN TUCKER, FORMER UNSCOM INSPECTOR: One thing about Yersinia pestis is that it's difficult to weaponize compared to anthrax. And the reason is, anthrax is a spore-forming bacterium that will form a tough outer coating that can survive in the elements, but plague, the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, is not a spore-former, so that it is relatively fragile in air and cannot survive very long unless it is formulated or manipulated to make it more persistent.

And we know that the United States, when we had an offensive biological warfare program, we tried to turn plague into a weapon without success. The Soviet Union was able to do so, but with a huge investment of resources. So this is a potential bioterrorist agent, but it would be very difficult for terrorists to use it effectively, particularly to inflict mass casualties.

PHILLIPS: And this is also something that can be treated with antibiotics. So from your experience, as an expert on bioterrorism, realistically, is a terrorist going to try to cause trauma to all of us with something that can be treated with antibiotics?

TUCKER: Well, anthrax can be treated with antibiotics too, and it was still -- it had a disproportionate psychological impact. But anthrax is easier to deliver because it does form spores. Plague is eminently treatable with dioxicillin (ph), which is a widely available antibiotic, and people who are at risk can be treated prophylactically or people who have been exposed can be treated -- if they're treated within 24 hours, they're almost sure to be cured. After that period, it can be more difficult to cure the disease.

PHILLIPS: And -- now, you were an inspector in Iraq. When you were there, were you looking for this bacteria, or were you concerned about bubonic plague?

TUCKER: Well, the British intelligence service had some suspicion that Iraq was experimenting with bubonic plague or with Yersinia pestis. But we did not find any firm evidence of that, no.

PHILLIPS: Do you see a threat of bioterrorism here? Plain and simple, yes or no?

TUCKER: Well, we do know that plague is a potential bioterrorist threat agent. It is available not only in laboratories, but also in the environment. Plague is an endemic disease, even in certain parts of the United States, as well as other parts of the world, so it could be obtained from infected rodents.

We know that Japan, during the Sino-Japanese war used plague as a weapon. In that case, they actually infected fleas and dropped the fleas in ceramic bombs on Chinese cities, along with grain that attracted rats which became infected by the fleas and in turn infected humans. So it was a rather unwieldy weapon, but it was effective.

PHILLIPS: So Jonathan, we're talking about 30 to 35 vials, vials that could possibly contain this bacteria, Yersinia pestis, which can cause the plague, bubonic plague. When you're talking about 30 to 35 vials, how much of an impact could that make?

TUCKER: Well, the vials themselves would just be seed cultures. They would be small amounts of freeze-dried bacteria, which would then have to be cultivated in large quantities and then processed, perhaps freeze-dried, in order to -- and milled, in order to make a bioterrorist agent.

So it would be a whole series of technical hurdles that the terrorists would have to overcome to use those vials as a weapon. So in their current form, they are not suitable as -- for use as a weapon.

PHILLIPS: You would really have to know what you're doing? You'd have to be a pretty advanced chemist?

TUCKER: Well, you would have to be a microbiologist, but also have additional military know-how that probably your average microbiologist would not have.

PHILLIPS: Interesting. OK, Jonathan Tucker, bioterror expert, coming to us out of Washington, D.C. Sir, we appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

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