Russia’s military scientists researched using monkeypox as a bio-weapon until at least the early 1990s, according to newly resurfaced interviews with a former Russian army colonel.
Ken Alibek, who was deputy chief of the USSR’s biological weapons programme until its collapse in 1991 and stayed on in its Russian Federation successor until a year later, claimed he oversaw 32,000 employees over 40 facilities.
After moving to the US, he revealed how the Soviets had investigated a variety of infectious diseases for use in warfare, focusing on smallpox until its eradication through global vaccine programmes forced them to ditch the idea.
In a 1998 interview with staff at the American Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project (CBWNP), he explained that was ruled out as stray cases caused by an accidental leak in Russia would now be ‘difficult to explain to the imnternational community’.
He said: ‘So we developed a special program to determine what “model” viruses could be used instead of human smallpox.
‘We tested vaccinia virus, mousepox virus, rabbitpox virus, and monkeypox virus as models for smallpox.
‘The idea was that all research and development work would be conducted using these model viruses. Once we obtained a set of positive results, it would take just two weeks to conduct the same manipulations with smallpox virus and to stockpile the warfare agent.
‘We would have in our arsenal a genetically altered smallpox virus that could replace the previous one.’
Russian Ministry of Defence decided to continue working with monkeypox to ‘create future biological weapons’ after the end of the USSR, Dr Alibek added.
The same year, he was brought before a United States Congress hearing, where he said was ‘he convinced that Russia’s biological weapons program has not been completely dismantled’.
His claims were backed by a former United Nations weapons inspector several years later.
Jonathan Tucker, who left the UN Special Commission to work at the Monterey Institute think tank in Washington, told United Press International there was still a ‘real far’ that monkeypox could be engineered as a bioweapon.
He said protection from the smallpox vaccine would be enough to repel infections, but many countries have only held onto moderate stockpiles of the jab since the disease was eradicated.
Another former UN weapons inspector, who did not wish to be named, was quoted in the report as saying: ‘There’s no confirmation that (monkeypox) leaked out, but the potential exists’.
Interviewed again for the same report, said that while he was not aware of any leaks, ‘it was not a problem to get any of the orthopox viruses (smallpox, camelpox and monkeypox)’.
At the time of the report, monkeypox was not thought to be transmissible between humans.
However it is now known that the virus can spread through extended face-to-face contact.
There are now 20 cases in the UK, health secretary Sajid Javid revealed on Friday, although ‘most cases’ are mild.
The virus has also been detected in nine other countries outside Central and West Africa, where the majority of historic cases have been concentrated.
African scientists have said they are baffled by its global spread.
The UK is now stocking up on smallpox vaccines as a precaution, he added.
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