September 19, 2013

Vaccine illegally exported to Syria not used to create biological weapons, say experts

Virus, not vaccine, focus of bioweapons researchers

By Colin Woodard
Staff Writer

The biological agents that a Maine company illegally exported to Syria a decade ago could not have been used to create a biological weapon for use against poultry, said a poultry-disease specialist who is familiar with the substances.

Maine Biological Laboratories of Winslow, now a division of the German firm Lohman Animal Health GmbH, shipped 14 million doses of its vaccine for the Newcastle disease, a pathogen that’s deadly to chickens and other commercial poultry, to a Syrian company in 2001 and early 2002. At the time, such exports required a special license because Syria was suspected of being a state sponsor of terrorism.

The Portland Press Herald reported Sept. 10 that the Newcastle disease virus was not believed to have any connection to Syria’s chemical weapons program, contrary to what was intimated by a New York Times article published Sept. 7.

It also presents no danger to humans. Instead, the virus has been of interest to researchers who have sought to create bioweapons for use against an opponent’s poultry industry and, thus, its wartime food supply.

But Newcastle disease vaccines almost certainly would not have been useful for bioweapons researchers, said Jarra Jagne, a poultry extension veterinarian at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine.

Jagne, who is familiar with the disease, said the inactivated virus in the vaccines first would have to be resuscitated somehow, to be helpful to a weapons program. “At this stage of technology, I don’t know of any way a killed vaccine could be brought back to life,” she said.

Also, Jagne said, vaccines are made from a weak strain of the disease, because more lethal strains kill the fertilized chicken eggs in which vaccines are grown.

“The Newcastle virus everyone is afraid of is called exotic Newcastle, and it is present all over the world,” Jagne said. “(Weapons researchers) wouldn’t need to go to the trouble to get it from a vaccine.

They could just go to a farm in another country and get a vial of exotic Newcastle virus.”

It is not clear why the federal government was concerned about exportation of the Newcastle vaccine to Syria. Repeated inquiries to the relevant agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security, failed to elicit an answer.

Over the past 11 days, the Press Herald approached several bioweapons experts in an effort to determine whether, and in what ways, inactivated Newcastle disease virus in a vaccine would be useful to bioweapons researchers. Each expert declined to answer or recommended someone with more specialized knowledge of the disease.

On Sept. 9, Jeff Butler, a spokesman for Lohman Animal Health, was asked about the utility of killed viruses to anti-poultry weapons makers but did not respond.

Several days later, the company sent a written statement saying it does not believe that the vaccines it sent to Syria could have been weaponized.

“Inactivated vaccines are dead and cannot be used for seed for biological weapons or any other purpose other than to produce protective immunity in chickens,” the company wrote. “We do not know of any way for this innocuous, sterile fluid to be used as a biological weapon against man or animal.”

The company also said that its action — shipping Newcastle disease vaccines to Syria without proper permits — was “a regulatory infraction” and “not a felony.” It described the incident as “a misinterpretation on the part of the company of a very complex regulation and not a willful illegal act.”

The company used similar language in a column published this week in Lewiston’s Sun Journal newspaper, in response to a Bangor Daily News story that the Sun Journal published.

(Continued on page 2)

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