Camel virus a potential bioweapon

By STEVE MITCHELL, UPI Medicine and Health Correspondent  |  May 3, 2002 at 7:53 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 3 (UPI) -- A virus common among camels is very similar to the deadly smallpox virus and may have potential as a biological weapon, scientists told United Press International Friday.

Iraq is known to have studied the camel virus in its bioweapons program and might have developed the ability to modify the virus into a form dangerous to humans.

Modifying camelpox so it could be used as a biological weapon "certainly would be a possibility," said Catherine Laughlin, chief of virology in the division of microbiology and infectious diseases in the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"But that's not a trivial task" and it would require a certain level of refined technology, Laughlin added.

Concerns about the plausibility of camelpox as a bioweapon were raised recently when scientists at England's Oxford University reported in the Journal of General Virology that camelpox is genetically similar to smallpox.

More extensive, as-yet-unpublished research conducted at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plum Island Animal Disease Center in Orient Point, N.Y., has found the two viruses have nearly identical genetic make-ups. USDA's research was conducted on virus samples from sick camels in Kazakhstan.

"We know from U.N. weapons inspections that Iraq has a tremendous capacity for developing biological weapons," R. Gregory Evans, director of the Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections at St. Louis University, told UPI in a telephone interview.

"But we don't really know what they are capable of," Evans said. "We're only guessing. I have not heard of any of the pox viruses being used as a biological weapon other than smallpox."

Whether Iraq has the sophisticated technology to make genetic modifications to the camel virus, which is called camelpox, to make it harmful to humans, remains uncertain. The virus as it occurs naturally appears to be innocuous to people. Many individuals in the Middle East and Asia handle camels and there has never been a reported camelpox outbreak in humans.

Randy Larsen, director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank, believes it is possible that Iraq or other countries may have the ability to genetically modify smallpox-like viruses.

Scientists working on Russia's bioweapons program were trying to make smallpox resistant to vaccines before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Larsen noted in an interview with UPI. Iran and Iraq have both tried to recruit the scientists who worked in that effort.

Larsen added that both Osama bin Laden and Iraqi leader Sadam Hussein have money and with money "you can hire the capability you need to make a serious biological weapon," especially since many former Russian bioweapons specialists currently are out of work or toiling at menial jobs.

Larsen said Australian scientists recently showed it was relatively easy to modify a smallpox-like virus that occurs in mice, so it became virulent. Some experts used to think manipulating the genome of smallpox was "too complex" for Russian scientists, but the Australian study suggests it may be easier than we think, he said.

Concern over the potential of turning camelpox into a biological weapon began in 1995 when United Nations weapons inspectors discovered that Iraq was working with the virus in its biological weapons program. In a 1999 interview on the PBS television program Frontline, U.N. bioweapons specialist Richard Spertzer said, "We were told at the time that the reason they were working on camelpox is that they believed that the local population, the indigenous population would be immune and outsiders coming in would be susceptible to it."

Spertzer, who worked with the U.N. Special Commission or UNSCOM, added in the Frontline interview, "They didn't go into detail about just illness or death, and to my knowledge camelpox has only killed one person, and that was a rather debilitated, ... compromised individual."

Even if Iraq or another country were able to use camelpox as a biological weapon, some experts believe treatments for smallpox may be adequate to counteract it.

"Presumably, the smallpox vaccine would work just fine" in preventing infection from a virulent strain of camelpox, NIH's Laughlin said.

Another available treatment, Laughlin said, is the antibiotic cidofovir, which is used to treat an eye infection but has been shown in animal studies to be effective in treating smallpox.

Jack Spencer, who focuses on biological weapons for The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the current smallpox vaccine may not be effective against a genetically altered strain of smallpox or camelpox.

"What we need is not just a vaccine for smallpox," Spencer told UPI, "but a 'super vaccine' that takes care of multiple strains and diseases."

Several members of the Department of Defense that are involved in research concerning biological weapons noted at a meeting on biodefense and homeland security on Tuesday that the military is currently working with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to develop such a vaccine.

Scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the DoD's center for formulating strategies to deal with biological weapons, declined to comment on this story.

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