Experts have said that a sample of botulinum recently discovered in Iraq was purchased legally from a U.S. center in the 1980s and consisted of a material that has never been successfully weaponized, the Los Angeles Times reported today (see GSN, Oct. 16).
Chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq David Kay listed the find of a vial of C. botulinum Okra B earlier this month in an interim report on the progress made in the search for alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (see GSN, Oct. 3). Soon after Kay’s report, U.S. President George W. Bush and other senior administration officials highlighted the sample as proof that Iraq maintained a biological weapons program prior to the war, the Times reported.
According to the Times, the botulinum sample appears to have been produced by the American Type Culture Collection, a nonprofit biological resource center. The center legally exported biological material to Iraq in the 1980s with U.S. Commerce Department approval, the Times reported.
Nancy Wysocki, a spokeswoman for the resource center, said it was unknown if the culture collection had exported the vial of botulinum found in Iraq. She said, however, that all biological exports to Iraq during the 1980s had been approved by Commerce.
“Iraq was not an embargoed country in the 1980s,” Wysocki said.
While Kay said in his report that a “biological agent” could be produced from the recovered sample, experts have disputed that claim, according to the Times.
Former chief U.N. biological weapons inspector David Franz said there is no evidence that Iraq, or any other country, had successfully weaponized botulinum B.
“The Soviets dropped it (as a goal) and so did we, because we couldn’t get it working as a weapon,” Franz said.
Former U.N. weapons inspector Raymond Zilinskas said that botulinum B dispersed quickly in the air, making it ineffective for use as an airborne agent for weapons purposes.
“From the weapons side, it’s not something to be concerned about,” said Zilinskas, now director of the Monterey Institute’s chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation program.
A U.S. official who has consulted with government experts said Kay “didn’t oversell” the significance of the recovered sample.
“He stated a simple fact. What Dr. Kay said was botulinum B can be used to produce a biological agent,” the official said. “Can that agent be used to produce a biological weapon? You bet,” the official added (Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17).