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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian 'May Have Aided Iraq'

The CIA is investigating an informant's accusation that Iraq obtained a particularly virulent strain of smallpox from a Russian scientist who worked in a Moscow smallpox lab during Soviet times, senior U.S. officials and foreign scientists said.

The officials said several U.S. scientists were told in August that Iraq might have obtained the strain from Nelja Maltseva, a virologist who worked for more than 30 years at the Research Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow before her death two years ago.

The information came to the U.S. government from an informant whose identity has not been disclosed. The CIA considered the information reliable enough to brief President George W. Bush about its implications. The attempt to verify the information is continuing.

Maltseva is known to have visited Iraq on several occasions. Intelligence officials are trying to determine whether, as the informant told them, she traveled there as recently as 1990, officials said. The institute where she worked housed what Russia said was its entire national collection of 120 strains of smallpox, and some experts fear that Maltseva may have provided the Iraqis with a version that could be resistant to vaccines and could be more easily transmitted as a biological weapon.

The possibility that Iraq possesses this strain is one of several factors that has complicated Bush's decision, expected this week, about how many Americans should be vaccinated against smallpox, a disease that was officially eradicated in 1980.

The White House is expected to announce that despite the risk of vaccine-induced illness and death, it will authorize vaccinating those most at risk in the event of a smallpox outbreak -- 500,000 members of the military who could be assigned to the Middle East for a war with Iraq and 500,000 civilian medical workers.

More broadly, the Russian government's refusal to share smallpox and other lethal germ strains for study by the United States, or to answer questions about the fate of such strains, has reinforced U.S. concerns about whether Russia has abandoned what was once the world's most ambitious covert germ weapons program.

A year ago in Crawford, Texas, Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a statement vowing to enhance cooperation against biological terrorism. But after an initial round of visits and a flurry of optimism, U.S. officials said Russia had resisted repeated U.S. requests for information about the Russian smallpox strains and help in the investigation into the anthrax attacks in the United States in October 2001.

"There is information we would like the Russians to share as a partner of ours," said William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. "Because if there are strains that present a unique problem with respect to vaccines and treatment, it is in the interests of all freedom-loving people to have as much information as possible."

The level of cooperation on biological terrorism was not discussed at the meeting last week between Bush and Putin in St. Petersburg, U.S. officials said, mainly because administration officials are not certain just how willing Putin is to enhance cooperation in this delicate area.

"The record so far suggests he is either unable or unwilling to push the military on this front," an administration official said.

"We think it may be a little of both, but we're not really sure at this point or what to do about it."

World Health Organization records in Geneva and interviews with scientists who worked with her confirmed that Maltseva visited Iraq at least twice, in 1972 and 1973, as part of the global campaign to eradicate smallpox.

Formerly secret Soviet records also show that in 1971 she was part of a covert mission to Aralsk, a port city in what was then the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, north of the Aral Sea, to help stop an epidemic of smallpox. The Soviet Union did not report that outbreak to world health officials, as required by regulations.

Last June, experts from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, drawing on those Kazakh records and interviews with survivors, published a report saying the epidemic was a result of open-air tests of a particularly virulent smallpox strain on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea.

The island, known as Renaissance Island in English, is between Kazakhstan and another Central Asian country, Uzbekistan. The United States recently spent $6 million to help both countries decontaminate anthrax that the Soviet military buried in pits on the island when they abandoned it in 1992.

Alan Zelicoff, co-author of the Monterey report and a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories, said the Aralsk outbreak was a watershed in the arcane world of bioweapons.

It demonstrated that the smallpox virus can be made to travel very large distances, city-size perhaps, and there may be a vaccine-resistant strain or one that at least is more communicable than garden-variety smallpox, Zelicoff said in an interview.

The Monterey report led U.S. officials to question whether the U.S. smallpox vaccine would be effective against the Aralsk strain or whether new vaccines or drugs might be needed if this strain were used in an attack. U.S. concern increased in recent months after the White House was told that Maltseva might have shared the Aralsk strain with Iraqi scientists on a visit there in 1990, administration officials said.

David Kelly, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, said there was a "resurgence of interest" in smallpox vaccine in Iraq in 1990, "but we have never known why."

A spokesman for the Russian Research Institute for Viral Preparations declined to comment on Maltseva or her work. Her daughter, a physician in Moscow, said she had no recollection of her mother ever going to Iraq.

Svetlana Marennikova, Maltseva's deputy in the Moscow laboratory, said in an interview that Maltseva had never gone to Iraq as far as she knew.

"She worked, and then when she got sick, she took a sick leave when she was no longer able to work," she said. "I don't know about Iraq. I didn't know about a trip there. I don't think she was there. I would know."

Donald Henderson, a senior adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a leader of the smallpox eradication campaign, described Maltseva as an "outgoing, hard-working scientist" who was unusually fluent in English. He said she had traveled widely for the WHO as part of the eradication campaign.

 Britain plans to vaccinate key military and health service workers against smallpox as a precaution against any terror attack with the virus, Reuters reported.

Denying it had any specific information of a smallpox attack, the government said Monday it would vaccinate 350 health specialists as well as selected members of the armed forces likely to be in the front line of any biological attack.