As the West Nile Virus spreads nationwide, some congressional leaders are asking whether the mosquito-borne illness could be linked to terrorism or to Iraq's bioweapons program. If so, a more troubling question may be whether Iraq's weapons efforts were unwittingly helped by U.S. scientists.
In a obtained by BusinessWeek, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention admitted that the CDC supplied Iraqi scientists with nearly two dozen viral and bacterial samples in the 1980s, including the plague, West Nile, and dengue fever. The letter, written in 1995 by then-CDC director David Satcher, was in response to a congressional inquiry.
The CDC was abiding by World Health Organization guidelines that encouraged the free exchange of biological samples among medical researchers -- before Congress imposed tighter controls on biological exports in 1995, says Thomas Monath, who headed the CDC lab where the viruses came from during the period in which they were handed over. "It was a very innocent request, which we were obligated to fulfill," recalls Monath. Plus, in the 1980s, Iraq and the U.S. were allies.
Scientists say the West Nile strain that so far has killed 46 people in the U.S. is not the same strain provided to Iraq, and they find it unlikely that it could have mutated. They also question whether terrorists would even try to develop West Nile as a weapon when more virulent viruses are available.
Still, some observers believe there should have been more prudence. "We were freely exchanging pathogenic materials with a country that we knew had an active biological warfare program," says James Tuite, a former Senate investigator who helped publicize Gulf War Syndrome. "The consequences should have been foreseen."
The CDC's 1995 Letter to the Senate
In 1995, the Center for Disease Control & Prevention provided to then-Senator Donald Riegel (D-Mich.) a complete list of all biological materials -- including viruses, retroviruses, bacteria, and fungi -- that the CDC provided to Iraq from Oct. 1, 1984 through Oct. 13, 1993. Among the materials on the list are several types of dengue and sandfly fever virus, West Nile virus, and plague-infected mouse tissue smears. In his letter to Riegel, then-CDC Director David Satcher wrote: "Most of the materials were non-infectious diagnostic reagents for detecting evidence of infections to mosquito-borne viruses."
Here's the complete letter and list of biological materials:
By Dean Foust and John Carey in Washington, D.C.
Edited by Sheridan Prasso