North Korea trying to weaponize bird flu

Bio-warfare experts call it potentially 'greatest threat al-Qaida could unleash'

The pariah state of North Korea is trying to weaponize the bird flu virus, making it the ideal threat for al-Qaida, the British intelligence agency MI6 has learned.

The Bush administration has given briefings classified "Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information" to members of Congress and the Senate on the threat.

In aerosol form it would be undetectable at all border crossings and virologists at Porton Down � Britain's research center responsible for developing antidotes against biological attacks � fear that a genetically engineered version of the virus would be far more lethal than any current threat from the virus.

World ranking experts have said that it would be "the greatest threat al-Qaida could unleash."

In an exclusive interview, Dr. Ken Allibek, the former director of the Soviet Union's biowarfare program, Biopreperat, who is now a senior adviser to the Bush administration on bio-defense, said: "The threat of a weaponized bird flu virus cannot be over emphasised. It would be the most terrible weapon in the hands of a terrorist. The advantage for al-Qaida is that an aerosolized weapon would be impossible to detect from one spread naturally by birds. But a lab-produced virus would be far more lethal."

Professor Peter Openshaw, a leading virologist at Imperial College, London, called it: "more terrifying than engineered smallpox. That would be relatively easy to contain because there is a vaccine. But with improvements in laboratory technology, it's becoming much easier to engineer these viruses. It's becoming a terrible concern."

A CIA document presented by Goss showed that the World Health Organization has warned the virus would affect one-fifth of the world's population "with 30 million requiring hospitalisation and at least 2 million people could die."

The decision to keep the briefing secret has led to fierce criticism from public health officials in the United States.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, a director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in Washington, said: "This is Cold War secrecy being applied to a public health issue. The truth is that the United States is seriously unprepared to cope with an avian flu outbreak � the more so if it is terrorist inspired."

Professor Hugh Pennington, a leading microbiologist at Aberdeen University, Scotland, said: "A clever molecular biologist could also try to mix the virus with other viruses so that it could spread person to person, which would be the greatest threat."

Scientists in America have recently recreated the Spanish flu virus that killed 50 million people in 1918. The full genetic sequence was published in specialist magazines earlier this year and is available via the Internet.

Openshaw said: "The sequence of the 1918 strain has just been published and there are obvious security concerns. There are many labs around the world that would be capable of recreating the same virus."

North Korea's biological warfare program is now the largest in the world. Among its 300,000 scientists, technicians and laboratory assistants are some 800 scientists who worked on the Russian bio-warfare program, Biopreperat. Some of them had been trying to exploit the 1918 Spanish flu virus as a potential weapon.

When Biopreperat collapsed with the end of the Soviet Union, a number of its staff were recruited by North Korea. In return for huge salaries they were given a comfortable lifestyle and unlimited research facilities to continue their work.

A high-ranking defector from North Korea's Academy of Sciences has told intelligence officers that the research to weaponize the virus is now a priority. The project is under the control of the country's top geneticist and head of its biological warfare program.

Dr. Yi Yong Su, 54, is known to have a close relationship with Kim Jong II, the country's supreme leader. A CIA profile describes her as conducting terminal experiments with anthrax on prisoners.

She has assigned eight research centers to work on various aspects of successfully weaponizing the bird flu virus.

One center is concerned with researching cereal rust spores, a disease which attacks crops. The spores are dusted on to the feathers of homing pigeons. When they return to their coops, they are checked to see how long the spores remain on their feathers.

But the sophisticated research on bird flu is being conducted at Institute 398 at Singam-Ri, south of the capital Pyongyang.

U.S. satellite images show the area is ring-fenced by three battalions of soldiers. Only visible above ground are a cluster of concrete-block buildings and fuel storage tanks.

The defector has said the laboratories, including two dealing with the latest molecular biological technology, are hidden far below ground.

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