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South Korea Not Prepared For Smallpox Attack by North: Report

South Korea is still not able to handle the effects of a smallpox attack by North Korea, which is judged to have the ability to manufacture the lethal virus, the Korea Herald reported on Monday (see GSN, March 2).

Pyongyang's biological weapon abilities include the capacity to reconstitute from available digital genetic sequences the highly virulent variola virus that was declared eradicated from nature in 1980, the South Korean Defense Ministry concluded in a new white paper. The document also states that the United States believes the South is among the nations most likely to experience a smallpox outbreak.

"Anyone who has the intent and the capability can now create the smallpox virus, which is the most devastating disease we have ever seen," said Jacob Cohn, a spokesman for the smallpox vaccine manufacturer Bavarian Nordic. "Here [in South Korea] the risk is double, in the sense that you have a next door neighbor and you have the international community risk."

A 2001 U.S. modeling exercise indicated that 3 million people could contract smallpox in no more than two months after the beginning of a pandemic. Historically, roughly 30 percent of those infected died.

As smallpox vaccinations ceased in the 1980s, certain biodefense analysts foresee a much higher death rate today should there be another outbreak. Additionally, because South Korea is more urbanized than the United States, the disease would be likely to infect individuals at a much faster pace.

South Korea in 2011 had to throw out roughly one-seventh of its 7-million-dose smallpox vaccine stockpile after government testing judged the doses to be ineffective (see GSN, Sept. 7, 2011). Approximately 4.6 million doses of the vaccine stock that remains have eclipsed their shelf-life.

Seoul has not initiated any program to replenish its smallpox vaccine stocks. The Korea Food and Drug Administration is assessing new indigenously manufactured vaccines that induce smallpox immunity by infecting individuals with the less severe cowpox. However, about one-fifth of the South Korean citizenry cannot safely receive replicating smallpox vaccines due to weakened immune systems.
 
South Korea has not reached out to Bavarian Nordic to place any orders for the Danish firm's nonreplicating vaccine, Cohn said. Nor has Seoul decided  how much vaccine it wants to stockpile relative to the size of its populace. While the U.S. military has inoculated all troops stationed in the South against smallpox, the South Korean armed forces have not been similarly vaccinated.
 
Opposition lawmaker Shin Hak-yong noted the South Korean armed forces also lack the proper technology for identifying disease agents. Existing devices are a decade old and can only ascertain four kinds of pathogens whereas North Korea is believed to have developed 13 different disease agents.
 
South Korea is working on more advanced technology that is not anticipated to be brought online any earlier than 2013.
 
“As the Korean military’s bio-chemical defense capabilities have been focused on chemical warfare, preparations for biological warfare have been neglected,” said Shin, a member of the Democratic Unity Party (Choi He-suk, Korea Herald, March 12).
 

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