THE WEST NILE VIRUS: NATURE OR BIOTERRORISM
By Manuel Cereijo
Since August 1999 a brain virus, a previously unknown variant of the West Nile virus has killed over 80 persons in the United States, and it has spread in almost all of the states.
In most people, the West Nile virus feels like a flu. Humans catch it from the bite of an infected mosquito. Usually, the illness lasts from six to 10 days, and people recover from it. But in young children, elderly, and people with a weak immune system, West Nile can turn into encephalitis-an inflammation of the brain. The brain becomes red and puffs up inside the skull. These victims may get tremors-their muscles become uncontrollably weak-and they can have seizures, fall into coma, stop breathing, and die.
The West Nile virus was first identified by virologists in 1937, in the West Nile district of Uganda, along the Albert Nile near the border with the Congo ( note Cuba's stance in the Congo during the 1970s and early 1980s). Mosquitoes are its main carriers and birds are its main hosts. They are its deep reservoir in nature.
It has been found all over east Africa, in Western India, in Australia, and in Egypt and the Middle East. Birds have occasionally carry West Nile into Eastern Europe during their annual migrations out of Africa. In 1999/2000 there was a major outbreak in southern Russia, around the cities of Volgograd and Rostow-on-Don. There are reports that over 35 people died. American scientists have been trying to persuade Russian scientists to send them samples of tissue and blood from the outbreak. So far, the Russians haven't sent any samples.
UNTIL SUMMER 1999, the West Nile HAD NEVER BEEN SEEN IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE. The outbreak in the United States is ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BIOLOGICAL EVENTS TO OCCUR IN THE WORLD OF VIRUSES IN THIS CENTURY. For one thing, until now the virus has generally not been fatal to its avian hosts. It presents all the characteristics of what is known as an operational bioterrorist attack-one that spread over large geographical regions, causes a minimum number of deaths as compared to an attack with smallpox or anthrax, but it causes economic damage, as well as panic and psychological effects.
The mystery of how the West Nile virus got first to New York city in 1999, and how it has developed in the past few months over all the nation has been troubling the CIA. Adding to the intrigue, it turns out that in 1985 the Center for Disease Control had sent samples of West Nile virus to a researcher in Iraq, and later, samples of the St. Louis encephalitis virus-very similar to West Nile, to the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Cuba.
Ken Alibek, the former deputy chief of research for Biopreparat, , the Soviet Union's main biowarfare program-who defected to the United States in 1992, has said to Congress ": "It looks very suspicious." "We need to take these situations with a high degree of seriousness".
The virus in the United States is encountering a whole new ecosystem. Everything is unfamiliar to the virus-the weather, the climate, many of the birds, and in spite of that, it has spread over the country. The virus is a stronger strain that the one found in the Middle East. It seems it has been genetically altered in a bioengineering lab.
Intelligence sources have released information of Iraq defectors, obtained in 1997, who have said" Hussein showed us a dossier that holds details of his ultimate weapon, developed in secret laboratories outside and far away from Iraq. Free of UN inspections, the labs would developed the SV 1417 strain of the West Nile virus. The SV1417 was to be "operationally tested" on a country far away from Iraq. The target has been selected but it is top secret", said Hussein.
Iraq and Cuba have kept bilateral agreements since the late 1980s in the areas, among others, of biotechnology.
Viruses and bacteria can be obtained from more than fifteen hundred microbe banks around the world. The international scientific community depends on this network for medical research and for the exchange of information vital to the fight against disease.
According to American biowarfare experts, Iraq obtained some of its most lethal strains of anthrax from the American Type Culture Collection in Rockville, Maryland, one of the world's largest libraries of microorganisms. For $35 they also pick up strains of tularemia and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, once targeted for weaponization at Fort Detrick, United States.
Iraq was also given by the CDC, as mentioned above, the West Nile virus in the late 1980s. At the same time, also mentioned above, the CDC gave Cuba the St. Louis encephalitis virus, very similar to the West Nile virus. Since the 1980s, Cuba and Iraq established very close relations. This was partially due to Dr. Rodrigo Alvarez Cambra, a well known orthopedic surgeon, who has operated on Hussein's knee, and also has treated other members of his family.
At the time Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, defected in 1995, he not only denounced Iraq activities in these weapons of massive destruction, but also the close relationship of Iraq, first with the former Soviet Union, and presently with Cuba. Yury Kalinin , one of the most important persons in Russia's biological development, visited Cuba in 1990 to establish in Cuba the Biocen, a Center very similar to Russia's Biopreparat. He acknowledged at the time, the involvement of Cuba in biological weapon development. Some 25 Cuban scientists were periodically trained in the Soviet Union from 1986 to 1992.
Furthermore, Cuba has advanced tremendously in the area of nanotechnology, an essential tool in the development of bio-weapons, and computer related technology. Fidel Castro Diaz Balart, Castro's oldest son, and former head of Cuba's nuclear program, visited India and Iraq to strengthen collaboration on this vital area.
Castro visited the Jawaharlal Nehru Center for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASSR) in October, 2000. Cuba and India agreed in collaboration on areas like biotechnology, tropical medicine, nanotechnology and computational technology.
Prof. V. Krishnan, JNCASR President said Cuba had tremendous advancement in biotechnology and nanotechnology. After his visit to India. Castro Diaz Balart visited Iraq and Iran.
The Cuba/Iraq cooperation is the most important threat faced by the United States in this fight against terrorism.