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US paper to face Russian smallpox lawsuit

: Yelena Vrantseva  

The daughter of a prominent Russian virologist is considering filing a suit against the New York Times. On December 3 the newspaper reported, citing CIA sources, that Iraq had allegedly obtained a particularly virulent strain of smallpox from Russian scientist Nelli Maltseva.

''I am shocked by that publication,'' her daughter Natalia Maltseva told Interfax news agency. ''Only at her funeral I learned that she was a world renowned scientist. And now, such notoriety! I intend to file a lawsuit against the paper for defiling her memory,'' she added.

Svetlana Marennikova, an expert for dangerous infections with the World Health Organization (WHO), who used to work together with Dr. Maltseva at the Moscow research lab for viral preparations, also refuted the allegations published by the New York Times.

''Those accusations are absurd. We knew Nelli Nikolayevna [Maltseva] as a very honest, hard-working and decent person, who loved her job and her country,'' she said.

''I met with the author of the article not long ago in Geneva, where I was taking part in a session of the expert committee for smallpox. I answered several questions, but when I sensed their provocative nature, I stopped the interview. Control over the access to strains of particularly virulent infections is so strict that no one could have taken anything from the lab or even entered it without my knowledge,'' Marennikova emphasized.

The head of the Moscow Research Institute for Viral Preparations Vitaly Zverev, too, has said that Maltseva did not have access to the deadly strains because she was involved in the diagnostics of herpes, measles and German measles. Zverev denied the allegations that Maltseva could have supplied strains of smallpox to Iraq. He confirmed that in 1971-1972 Maltseva visited Iraq twice as part of the global campaign to eradicate smallpox.

Gazeta.Ru has learnt that the New York Times report, in which the paper cited CIA sources and alleged that Iraq could have obtained a particularly virulent strain of smallpox from a Russian scientist, contained several errors. The author of the report wrote that the late director of the Moscow Research Institute for Viral Preparations Nelli Maltseva visited Iraq in 1990 where she could have sold a strain of smallpox.

However, Gazeta.Ru has learnt that in 1990 Nelli Nikolayevna Maltseva did not work as the head of the viral preparations institute, and did not have access to any smallpox strains. The head of the institute Vitaly Zverev confirmed to Gazeta.Ru that Nelli Maltseva had worked on smallpox strains until the late 1970s. After the smallpox virus was completely eradicated in the USSR in 1974, the smallpox lab was closed.

In the late 70s Malseva was appointed head of the lab for diagnosing dangerous diseases such as herpes, measles and German measles and no longer had any access to strains of smallpox.

''One need only to have known her,'' Zverev told Gazeta.Ru. ''She could not have sold a virus she fought against throughout the best part of her life. Nelli Maltseva was saving patients suffering from smallpox in Iran, Syria and Egypt. In the early 70s she went to Iraq. The last time she went abroad was in 1988, to Finland.''

According to Zverev, Maltseva was the best expert the World Health Organization had. She travelled widely on WHO missions to eradicate smallpox epidemics.

''I think that now the Americans are alleging that Nelli Nikolayevna sold smallpox to Iraq because she is the only smallpox expert no longer alive and is therefore unable to say anything in her defence. She died two years ago. And, undoubtedly, those allegations are politically motivated.''

The Moscow Research Institute for Viral Preparations once housed the entire collection of 120 strains of smallpox. The strains were stored in a heavily guarded building. WHO experts regularly inspected the stock, and the conditions of storage. In 1994 all strains were moved to the village of Koltsovo in the Novosibirsk Region, to the Vector State Scientific Centre for Virology and Biotechnology.

The main smallpox keeper in Vector is the head of the museum of virus strains Alexader Guskov. He told Gazeta.Ru that smallpox strains had never disappeared from their centre, as it was ''impossible''.

Director general of Vector Lev Sandakhchiyev told Gazeta.Ru that storing smallpox is fairly straightforward a test-tube kept in a fridge. According to Sandakhchiyev, nobody had ever caught the disease in lab conditions. He added that the scientists had discovered that smallpox can remain active for up to 200 years.

Sandakhchiyev also told Gazeta.Ru that each year WHO experts visit Vector and inspect the storage conditions. The last inspection was held in September this year. A delegation comprised of biological security experts from Great Britain, the US, Sweden and Switzerland acknowledged the high level of safety standards observed in the lab.

The scientists believe that the political motives behind the New York Times report are obvious. So far the UN inspectors in Iraq have found nothing that could justify Americas aggressive plans against that country. Hence, the speculation about the transfer of smallpox strains to Iraq.

Incidentally, this is not the first time that the US has tried to scare the world with the threat from smallpox. The Americans have continuously campaigned for the re-introduction of mass vaccination programmes and production of the vaccine. WHO, however, rejected those calls.

As the head of the department for microbiology, virology and immunology of the Moscow Sechenov Medical Academy, Academician of the Russian Academy of Medical Science Anatoly Vorobyov told Gazeta.Ru, the allegations that Russia could have sold smallpox to Iraq are absurd and untrue. Smallpox strains, according to Vorobyov, could once be found in any ''self-respecting lab in the majority of nations that performed smallpox vaccinations''.

In Vorobyovs opinion, smallpox could have endured in some countries, other than the US and Russia (officially, only two labs still maintain smallpox stocks the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Ivanovsky Institute in Moscow) since not all nations signed the convention on the prohibition of the development of smallpox strains and on their destruction.

However, Vorobyov believes it is unlikely that Iraq is one of those states. To all appearances, says Vorobyov, Iraq has no biological weapons because such labs are very difficult to conceal. A test-tube containing a strain, in the scientists opinion, is no biological weapon, anyway.

05 15:33


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