One Export Control That’s Really for the Birds

Posted by at 8:31 pm on October 14, 2008
Category: General

Bird FluAn interesting and informative article in the online edition of Die Welt takes the U.S. export control scheme to task for restrictions imposed on the export of avian bird flu vaccine.

When Indonesia’s health minister stopped sending bird flu viruses to a research laboratory in the U.S. for fear Washington could use them to make biological weapons, Defense Secretary Robert Gates laughed and called it “the nuttiest thing” he’d ever heard.
Bird flu has killed more than 240 people across the world since 2003, nearly half of them in Indonesia.

Bird flu has killed more than 240 people across the world since 2003, nearly half of them in Indonesia.
Yet deep inside an 87-page supplement to United States export regulations is a single sentence that bars U.S. exports of vaccines for avian bird flu and dozens of other viruses to five countries designated “state sponsors of terrorism.“

The reason: Fear that they will be used for biological warfare.

The article doesn’t identify that single sentence, but, of course, that’s what this blog is for: to supply such technical details. ECCN 1C352.a.2 controls avian influenza viruses that have an intravenous pathogenicity index in six-week old chickens greater than 1.2 or which cause at least 75% mortality in 4- to 8-week old chickens infected intravenously. Although a note to ECCN 1C352 excludes vaccines, it refers to ECCN 1C991, which covers vaccines against the pathogens identified in ECCN 1C352, and hence at least some vaccines against avian influenza. ECCN 1C991, like other ECCNs in the xx99x series, is subject to anti-terrorism (AT) controls and thus items covered by that ECCN require export licenses to Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Sudan.

The article interviewed several experts who cast doubt on the notion that bird flu vaccine can be turned into a terrorist weapon:

The danger of biological warfare use depends on the specific virus or bacteria. But most experts agree that bird flu vaccines cannot be genetically altered to create weapons because they contain an inactivated virus that cannot be resuscitated.

Worse, the export controls appear to be counterproductive and run the risk that a virus that might have been controlled early in poultry populations instead mutates into a deadly human form which spreads to the United States:

[Export controls] could make it harder to contain an outbreak of bird flu among chickens in, say, North Korea, which is in the region hardest hit by the virus. Sudan and Iran already have recorded cases of the virus in poultry and Syria is surrounded by affected countries. Cuba, like all nations, is vulnerable because the disease is delivered by migratory birds.

Kumanan Wilson, whose research at the University of Toronto focuses on policymaking in areas of health protection, said it would be ironic if the bird flu virus morphed into a more dangerous form in one of those countries.

“That would pose a much graver threat to the public than the theoretical risk that the vaccine could be used for biological warfare,” he said.

U.S. Commerce Assistant Secretary Christopher Wall was interviewed for the story. He declined to elaborate on the precise threat posed by these vaccines, other than to say that the U.S. had “valid security concerns” with respect to the vaccines.


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Copyright © 2008 Clif Burns. All Rights Reserved.
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