- The outbreak of a mysterious brain virus in New York
that killed five people last month was investigated by the Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) as possible evidence of biological terrorism by Iraq's Saddam
- Although the CIA has since concluded that the mosquito-borne
illness was not an example of "bio-terror", the riddle of how
a previously unknown variant of West Nile virus appeared for the first
time in America is perplexing scientists.
- Experts say it is hard to prove or disprove transmission
theories and the CIA's investigation offers an intriguing example of anxiety
in America over the grim prospect of cities coming under biological attack.
- Few in the government paid much attention when New Yorkers
began complaining of flu-like symptoms in August. Even when these symptoms
developed into a painful swelling of the brain attributed to St Louis encephalitis,
a virus borne by mosquitoes and birds in the American Midwest, there was,
said authorities, no cause for panic.
- As Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor, ordered the spraying
of insecticide over the city and cans of insect repellent were distributed,
scientists at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta began testing
brain tissue from victims.
- They were not convinced by the encephalitis diagnosis,
having heard reports of crows and other birds dying in New York. "St
Louis encephalitis does not kill birds," said Tom Skinner, a spokesman
for the CDC. "It had to be something else."
- The test results were startling. The virus was a subtle
variation of the West Nile bug which has killed people in Africa, India,
Australia and the Middle East but never in North America.
- News of the diagnosis set alarm bells ringing at the
CIA, where a group of analysts specialising in biological weapons recalled
a report from an Iraqi defector which they had dismissed as nonsense six
months before - namely that Saddam, the Iraqi leader, was developing a
strain of the West Nile virus to use as a biological weapon. Mikhael Ramadan
had published his claim in a book called In the Shadow of Saddam, a bizarre
account of life as one of Saddam's doubles.
- Ken Alibeck, a former researcher in the Soviet Union's
biological weapons programme who defected to America in 1992, also voiced
alarm, telling congressmen that a thorough study of the West Nile outbreak
- Soviet biologists are known to have evaluated the virus
for use as a biological weapon precisely because it could be put into mosquitoes
and released into an enemy city without anyone suspecting it to be the
work of a hostile regime.
- The fear in Washington is that such know-how may have
been passed to Saddam who, since United Nations weapons inspectors withdrew
at the end of last year, has been free to develop weapons of mass destruction
without interference from the West.
- A number of films and novels about the threat of biological
terrorism has heightened expectations of an attack. The government has
fuelled the public's unease, spending huge sums on training cities such
as New York in how to deal with a "bio-terror event" and on the
development of vaccines.
- Even with such enthusiastic government support, however,
local authorities may find it impossible to prove that any outbreak of
a disease is the result of a "bio-terror" campaign. "This
is one of the most troubling aspects," said Jessica Stern, a Harvard
University lecturer and specialist in weapons of mass destruction. "How
do you tell when it is natural or deliberate?"
- An intelligence source said the CIA relied on various
factors to rule out biological terrorism in the New York outbreak. West
Nile virus, said the source, would not make a particularly effective killer.
Nor was there any "correlating intelligence" to shore up the
hypothesis of a terror attack, such as reports of airline passengers carrying
containers of mosquitoes. "In the end," said the source, "there
was nothing to suggest this was anything other than the work of Mother
- At the CDC, scientists speculated that ecological change
was responsible. In which case - if the virus survives New York's continuing
anti-mosquito spraying campaign from trucks and helicopters and spends
the winter in hibernation - the West Nile strain may be here to stay.