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Written by Al J. Venter.


The Ebola virus disease (or Ebola hemorrhagic fever) has become a horrific reality in many African states: deaths are currently running well into four figures, with health workers the worst hit. By the time this publication goes to press, it is anticipated that Ebola disasters will have been reported in Europe. It is now in mainland America.

It was Dr. James A.F. Compton, who wrote a primer on chemical and biological weapons some years ago, who made one of the most prescient comments in the modern age about biological weapons.1 Penned at a time when the biowarfare concept was all but put on the backburner by the major Western powers—the United States included—he warned: “These weapons work!” Speaking specifically about biological arsenals, he went on to declare, “They are undergoing revolutionary developments which make them practical and very lethal participants in those human affairs which are ultimately resolved with blood and iron … be ignorant and be damned, and condemn your children as well.”

In a curious linked development, several years ago I spent time with Dr. Margaret Isaacson, a South African/Israeli tropical medicine specialist of international renown. Before moving on to the World Health Organization, Dr. Isaacson was linked to Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and we would often see her going about her business in CNN and BBC news reports that emerged from Africa each time there was an outbreak.

While tending to the sick and dying during the Ebola outbreak in the Congo in 1976, she recalls disembarking from a flight at Yambuku to find a group of North Koreans already there2. They were “tourists,” they told her, though it was clear by their actions that most were scientists. It didn’t take her long to discover that almost all their work was centered on the spread of the hemorrhagic fever virus.

Being a circumspect individual, Margaret would say little more on the subject. But she did confide that she talked to intelligence personnel on both sides of the Atlantic, and undoubtedly in Israel. In answer to my question as to whether the North Koreans were involved in a biological warfare program—in which Ebola might one day be deployed—her answer was succinct: “Use your imagination, Al.”

Not long afterwards, while I was working with Dr. Jonathan Tucker on a report on chemical and biological warfare for London’s Jane’s Information Group, several Soviet biowarfare links emerged. Jonathan, who has since passed away, was then Director of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Nonproliferation Project at California’s Monterey Institute of International Studies, and he had one of the most interesting stories of all.3 Intelligence sources in Washington chanced on a report of the death of a Soviet scientist in what is today the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology “Vektor” Center in Koltsovo, then, with Zagorsk and Irkutsk, at the heart of Moscow’s biowarfare program.

According to Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov (today Ken Alibek), a Soviet defector we scribes all got to know quite well while doing our research, there was an accident in one of Moscow’s biowarfare labs in 1988. Nikolai Ustinov, a scientist working on the “Vektor” program, pricked his finger while handling a vial containing the Ebola virus. He was immediately placed in isolation and became the focus of a series of studies that went on until he died: the most complete dossier on an Ebola death at the time. Ustinov was allowed visits by his wife, but insulated sheets of glass separated them. They would talk to each other through microphones and each time she left, they would put their palms together on the glass. The last time they saw each other he was already bleeding both internally and externally, his condition so bad that he left the imprint of his palm, in blood, on the glass.4

It is interesting that although Russia, together with 170 states, is a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention (which prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons) hemorrhagic fever research continued in all three centers after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And with aggressive former KGB Lt Col. Vladimir Putin at Moscow’s helm, there is a good probability that that research continues today.

What then is the Ebola “terror” all about? There has been a great deal of research on the subject, and as far as is known, primates are the cause of most outbreaks, though the scientific community is not completely certain about the Marburg virus disease, because that first occurred in the town of Marburg in Germany.

The two fevers have a number of common denominators, though. Ebola is more lethal, with a death rate topping 90 percent in some areas and 60 percent in others.5 Its’ effects are truly horrific, as one report stated, “with people writhing in agonizing pain, vomiting blood, passing bloody urine and diarrhea, bleeding from the nose, ears and mouth and shedding bloody tears.” Also, recent research has shown that the virus is constantly mutating, creating new and, in the long term, possibly even deadlier strains. In a nutshell, while there are a few new drugs that tend to help in some cases, they have failed in others, making this potentially the deadliest international health hazard of the past century.

Symptoms start two (some studies say five) days to three weeks after contracting the virus, with a fever, sore throat, muscle pain and headaches. Infections stem from the exchange of bodily fluids, though it is still not clear whether you can get it from mosquitoes that might have taken blood from somebody who already has it.

Before he died, Jonathan Tucker made another comment that has been often quoted in recent years. He declared that while the 20th century was the age of the atom, the 21st century will be the age of the gene.6 His phraseology is explicit: “Not only will molecular bio-technology transform agriculture, energy production, health care, and microelectronics, it will ultimately pose significant military and strategic challenges.” Dr. Tucker went on to say that although recombinant DNA technology offered great benefits to humankind, it also had a dark side: “The genetic engineering of microbial pathogens, toxins, and even natural brain chemicals to create more deadly, persistent and insidious weapons of terror and war.”

His comments had a direct bearing on developments in the United States relating to the spread of anthrax, which demonstrated that no country is immune from attack by biological weapons. We know, too, that the use of anthrax on the American East Coast in the last quarter of 2001 proved that germs are extraordinarily difficult to deploy as weapons. For a start, it is not easy to become infected by anthrax simply by handling the spore in powder form, such as that disseminated to members of the U.S. Congress by envelope, unless you have a cut and it enters your body subcutaneously.

A comprehensive study on the spread of bioterrorism and biocrimes was released in Washington, D.C. little more than a year ago. Written by Dr. W. Seth Carus, then a visiting fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for Counterproliferation Research and today one of America’s leading pundits on biological warfare. In 1997, Carus published a paper that remains seminal to the subject, titled The Threat of Bioterrorism.

In his latest dissertation, Dr. Carus warned that the international community faced a much greater threat today than was previously acknowledged. He noted a greater availability of sophisticated, technical expertise to terrorist groups (including former out-of-work Russian scientists). In some instances, he maintained, these elements had the backing of rogue governments. Carus stressed that it was vital that the West take this threat seriously and that “It would be a grave mistake not to do so.”

The American perception of the threat, suggested Carus, had been slow, but it was moving ahead and is reflected in the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici legislation passed on Capitol Hill. This provides training to 120 U.S. cities in chemical and biological incident response. The media is rarely invited to these sessions, which are closed to the public.

Unfortunately, he added, “The threat of bioterrorism generally, remains poorly understood except by those associated with the disciplines involved. Although there have been some excellent theoretical explorations of the subject, there has been little empirical research into the illicit use of biological agents.” In his publication, Dr. Carus cited more than 110 alleged cases involving biological agents in the past century. These ranged from the work of Japan’s notorious Unit 731, which conducted a succession of germ warfare experiments that lasted years on Chinese and Allied prisoners-of-war in Manchuria in the 1930s, to the more recent public attacks launched by Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo.

This privately funded Japanese organization also experimented with anthrax, botulinum toxin (botox), Q fever, as well as Ebola virus. Unconfirmed reports indicate that their scientists went to Africa to acquire the virus. From personal research in Johannesburg, it was discovered that there were Aum Shinrikyo agents in Kikwit (present-day Congo, then Zaire) when that outbreak was at its worst.

In his original treatise, Dr. Carus made the following points with regard to the threat of bioterrorism:

  • While some terrorist groups had explored biological weapons as a potential tool, only a handful had attempted to actually acquire agents, and even fewer tried to use them.
  • There is strong reason to worry that bioterrorism could become a much greater threat. An increasing number of foreign and domestic groups are working towards adopting the tactic of inflicting mass casualties to achieve ideological, vengeful or “religious” goals, which are often hard to define or understand. In this regard, biological weapons are ideal for the purpose. Moreover, terrorist groups could employ such agents to incapacitate rather than kill, and are useful for the purposes of extortion.
  • The greater availability of expertise and resources at their command could overcome past technological barriers to effectively disperse biological agents, especially if the perpetrators were to gain access to a state-sponsored biological warfare program.
  • In the U.S., there is a growing concern that terrorists will use this medium. Already, law enforcement agents have reportedly arrested individuals associated with white supremacist and militia groups for acquiring biological agents. Al-Qaeda is also known to be interested in mastering these disciplines.7

Which brings us back to Ebola’s spread, a serious matter, since each week there are fresh reports of outbreaks in Africa and the Middle East. Officially, at the time of writing, there have been more than a thousand deaths reported. In truth, those refer only to cases that governments are aware of. They do not include infections in the often-remote interiors of countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Congo, Nigeria, and a couple of dozen others. A Red Cross team that had been working in villages in Sierra Leone’s Kailahun district last August, spoke of finding Ebola deaths in just about every village they visited, and that in an area not much bigger than Metropolitan New York City (300 square miles). There are scores more such districts that nobody has been anywhere near, which also applies to surrounding countries like Liberia, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and others.

Put another way, it only takes one Ebola-contaminated passenger flying from Sierra Leone to Nigeria to infect a vast city like Lagos, with its 25 million people, the majority living in cramped, unsanitary, and overcrowded conditions. That has already happened, with the disease now having leap-frogged into the oil-rich Niger Delta. And while there are those who maintain that what happens health-wise in Africa is of little concern elsewhere, they have not factored in the reality of Nigeria supplying America with almost a quarter of its crude oil imports.

Potential consequences are enormous. The first to flee further outbreaks of Ebola in the Nigerian, Angolan, or any other African oilfields would be American and European contract workers who keep these strategic facilities functioning. There is simply no question that the majority would beat a quick retreat home if the disease became widespread. And since several countries are still working on a cure—never mind prophylactic measures, such as those sometimes in place for Malaria—the ability to stop its spread is unknown.

If this trend continues, the accessibility of African oil supplies could soon become history and axiomatically, the oil price could spiral.

One glimmer of hope with regard to the use of biological weapons being difficult to disseminate came from the World Health Organization in its 1970 report titled Health Aspects of Chemical and Biological Weapons. It stated: “Although biological agents themselves are easy to produce, complex production and delivery systems are needed if even minimal reliance is to be placed on the outcome of an attack, except perhaps where the intention is simply to produce social disruption by a limited sabotage affect (e.g., the introduction of smallpox).”

Foot notes

  • 1 James A.F. Compton; Military Chemical and Biological Agents : Telford Press, NJ, 1987
  • 2 According to Dr. Isaacson, there were Soviet scientists at a 1973 Congolese outbreak of hemorrhagic fever (Personal interview)
  • 3 Personal visit with Dr. Tucker at the Monterey Institute as well as e-mail correspondence 2001/03
  • 4 Personal communications, phone and e-mail with Dr. Alibek over several years while researching for Britain’s Jane’s Information Group
  • 5 Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta Georgia, August 2014
  • 6 Dr. Jonathan Tucker; Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (BCSIA Studies in International Security), Belfer Center Studies in International Security, MIT Press, 2000
  • 7 Personal interview with Dr. Seth Carus in Washington at the National Defense University’s Center for Counterproliferation Research.