The smallpox threat is real

Kenan Malik lets himself down factually in an otherwise thoughtful piece on the threat of biological terrorism ("Don't panic: it's safer than you think", 8 October). He states that smallpox - an "imagined terrorist favourite" - is "almost impossible to obtain: only two laboratories in the world still possess supplies of live smallpox virus . . . neither is likely to provide handouts for terrorists".

The facts are altogether less reassuring. In 1992, Ken Alibek, the former deputy chief of the illicit Soviet biological weapons programme, defected to the US. Alibek revealed to American and British intelligence that, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Soviets produced and stored multi-tonne quantities of the smallpox virus to be used as a biological weapon.

Alibek's revelations give rise to concerns that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the virus may have travelled beyond. The fear is that, via former Russian scientists, a number of states which are known to sponsor terrorism have obtained smallpox and are turning it into a weapon that, if deployed, could kill millions. The uncomfortable reality is that it is simply not possible to know for sure where the virus is or who might be turning it into a lethal weapon of mass destruction.

Simon Chinn
Wall to Wall Television, London NW5

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world