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Commentary & Analysis | SMALLPOX

A Deadly Recipe

July 28, 2002|WENDY ORENT | Wendy Orent writes frequently on infectious disease and is currently writing a book about plague.

ATLANTA — Those American scientists who know Gen. Pyotr Burgasov don't expect much candor from him. Alexis Shelokov, a member of a U.S. scientific team that, in 1992, investigated a mysterious 1979 outbreak of anthrax in the then-Soviet Union city of Sverdlovsk, says the tall, silver-haired former deputy minister of health was "easy, pleasant, smiling, good to eat and drink with, a man who loved people and loved life. He was very comfortable with lying." Burgasov denied--and still denies--that the 68 people who died of inhalational anthrax in that outbreak were victims of a bioweapons accident. He insists they ate infected meat. But in a November 2001 interview in the Moscow News, the affable Burgasov offered candid advice to terrorists. Anthrax isn't worth much, he noted--it doesn't spread. "But smallpox--that's a real biological weapon," he said.

Burgasov then dropped a bomb of his own, one that is still reverberating in the American corridors of power. "On Vozrazhdenie Island in the Aral Sea, the strongest recipes of smallpox were tested," he said. "Four hundred grams of smallpox formulation was exploded on the island." At that same time in 1971, he continued, a research vessel sailing on the Aral Sea passed within 15 kilometers of the testing site. A young technician was on board taking samples of plankton. The airborne smallpox "got her," in Burgasov's words, and she fell ill after returning home to the town of Aralsk, where she passed the infection on to her brother and other people. "I called [Yuri] Andropov, who at that time was chief of KGB, and informed him of the exclusive recipe of smallpox obtained on Vozrazhdenie Island," Burgasov said.

Burgasov's bomb took a long time to detonate. Dr. Ken Alibek, former deputy director of Biopreparat, the Soviet biological-weapons apparatus, reported on Burgasov's interview before the U.S. House Committee on International Relations in December, but no one paid attention. In April, however, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies received the original Soviet-era reports on the outbreak from Dr. Bakyt B. Atshabar, director of the Kazakh Scientific Center of Almaty, Kazakhstan. The report was sent to biodefense expert Alan P. Zelicoff of Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, who also interviewed two of the original patients in Kazakhstan by telephone and subjected the data to rigorous statistical analysis. Zelicoff, a medical doctor, presented his findings June 15 at a National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine forum on smallpox vaccination, and Burgasov's bomb exploded.

The "exclusive recipe" of smallpox tested on Vozrazhdenie Island produced no ordinary disease. The young technician who first fell ill had been vaccinated. So had her brother, whom she infected when she returned to Aralsk. Both suffered, as Zelicoff determined, severe illness. And both were contagious. Although they survived, a young woman who visited them did not. She died of hemorrhagic smallpox, the most terrible form of the disease, which causes uncontrollable bleeding and rapid death. Two infants also died of hemorrhagic smallpox. None of the three had been vaccinated. The vaccinated patients did not die, but they came down with moderately severe disease.

Before naturally occurring smallpox disappeared in 1978, hemorrhagic smallpox was exceedingly rare--not more than 2.5% of all smallpox cases took this form, which was most common in countries such as India and Bangladesh, where crowded conditions allowed severe disease to spread more easily. Yet in Kazakhstan, all three nonvaccinated cases were hemorrhagic. The numbers are small but the percentage is unnerving.

Zelicoff's presentation provoked an instant uproar.

Dr. Donald A. Henderson, who directed the smallpox-eradication campaign and who has long advocated destruction of the remaining legitimate stores of the smallpox virus, immediately protested that, since smallpox still occurred in nearby Afghanistan, the technician may have caught the disease naturally at one of the several Central Asian ports the ship visited. But the woman, though she made many stops in the region, never visited Afghanistan, and no one who did fell ill. Furthermore, Burgasov himself states that this was a bioweapons incident. And former Soviet bioweapons scientist Sergei Popov, who now works for Advanced Biosystems Inc., a biodefense firm in Manassas, Va., says he had heard rumors of the Aralsk bioweapons outbreak for years. Evidence suggests that we should take Burgasov at his word.

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