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Last Updated:5/22/03

September 25, 2002
Contact: Wayne Smith, Anya Landau: 202-232-3317


            Recently, the State Department has made a number of unsubstantiated charges against Cuba, the most publicized of which was Undersecretary of State John Bolton’s May allegation of a Cuban bioweapons effort. But for all that, not even the State Department has bitten off on the story pushed by a handful of Cuban exiles that West Nile virus was introduced into the United States via migratory birds from Cuba as part of what they allege to be Castro’s biological warfare against the United States.

            And no wonder that not even the State Department endorses this argument, for the most rudimentary examination explodes the idea that the virus was introduced by migratory birds from Cuba. Why? Because this strain of West Nile virus first appeared in New York – in Queens, to be precise – in 1999, and has since spread west and south to other states. [1] The carriers, then, could not have been birds from Cuba. One exile writer, Carlos Wotzkow, [2] tries to explain this away by suggesting that Cuban officials could have taken advantage of the international banding program to find out which birds had been banded in New York – or any other place of interest. They would then have infected those birds and sent them on their way back to New York.

            The problem with that explanation is that the birds wouldn’t have flown directly to New York. As Wotzkow himself points out, along the way, they “stop to rest.”  Indeed, they would stop many times along the way, through the southern states – all of which have mosquitoes. Thus, if infected birds were migrating up from Cuba the virus surely would have appeared in those states even before they reached New York. Moreover, the infected birds remain viremic—or, contagious—for only 2-3 days (after which they die or become immune), while it would take a bird 1-2 weeks to get from Cuba to New York. Clearly then, the source of the virus in Queens could not have been birds from Cuba.

Scientists point to a more likely source of the first U.S. outbreak. The virus found in Queens in 1999 is nearly identical to a strain discovered in Israel in 1998. Given Queens’ proximity to Kennedy and La Guardia airports, it seems likely that the virus was brought in by infected mosquitoes trapped in the cargo hold of  planes coming in from Israel – or perhaps some other site in the Middle East.

            Another problem with the Cuban migratory birds theory is the question of their effects in Cuba. Once released, some might well have spent a few days in Cuba before heading north, which should have resulted in some outbreak in Cuba. Wotzkow acknowledges the problem, but simply notes that “no plan is perfect.”  Perhaps not, but this one would amount to shooting one’s self in the foot – knowingly. Wotzkow claims that there were a few unreported cases in Cuba. He cannot prove this but still, if some of the flock had died before even leaving Cuba and infected any Cubans, surely the same would have happened enroute to New York as noted above.

Experts explain that if West Nile had reached any island in the Caribbean—which it appears not to have except for one isolated case in the Cayman islands—birds and mosquitoes would have quickly spread it throughout the region. In fact, the mosquito that carries the virus tends to breed best in more tropical climates, making New York a less than ideal launchsite for such a weapon by any terrorist.

            West Nile virus is by no means an “ultimate weapon,” as suggested by some exiles. It is barely a weapon at all. So far, fewer than two thousand people have been infected in the U.S. and of those, only some one hundred have died. That is a worrisome public health problem (which hopefully will soon be solved), but it is nothing that comes close to threatening the security of the nation.

            Despite clear scientific evidence to the contrary, Martin Arostegui, author of an October 1 article entitled “Castro Weaponizes West Nile Virus” (in the Washington Times’ Insight Magazine) states flatly that the recent outbreaks of West Nile virus in the U.S. “have been traced to birds that may have been infected at Cuban bioweapons labs, according to defecting scientists….”

            But is this assertion in fact true? One of those defecting scientists is Carlos Wotzkow, who is quoted above. But Wotzkow traces no birds nor offers any other hard evidence. He simply believes that migratory birds may have been used by Castro.

            Another of the defecting scientists who supposedly traced the virus to birds from Cuba is Luis Roberto Hernandez (referred to erroneously by Arostegui as Roberto Hernandez). Arostegui quotes him as saying that: “We were ordered to work with viruses like the ones for encephalitis that are highly resistant to insecticides [sic]. Officers from Military Intelligence that headed our laboratories were ordering us to trap flocks of birds – with migratory routes toward the United States – with the idea in mind [that] contaminated birds when bitten by mosquitoes later on could infect human beings.”

            But Hernandez himself, who emphasizes that he is as anti-Castro as Arostegui but believes in sticking to the truth, says he never said any such thing and can’t imagine where Arostegui got his data “plagued [with]mistakes.” In a letter published online in La Nueva Cuba on September 17, 2002, Hernandez states: “ I have never worked with viruses. I am an entomologist….I have never worked with Intelligence Officers….and I have never trapped birds because I am not an ornithologist.” [3]

             So much for Arostegui’s “defecting scientists” who have actually traced the outbreak of the virus here to birds from Cuba!

Scientists are troubled by the hysteria these false claims could provoke. Dr. Peter Marra, a terrestrial animal senior scientist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, expresses dismay that peddling the West Nile-Cuba theory “just feeds into the fears of the public. It sounds like something to use just to attack Castro….it’s important to get scientific credibility into the mix.” All of the experts interviewed by CIP categorically rejected the mere suggestion that Cuba—or any other actor—would attempt to weaponize West Nile virus, given the lack of control over delivery and the very low mortality rate in infected humans. Now that Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has reportedly called for a hearing to investigate the West Nile outbreak in the United States, scientists hope to use that forum to educate the public.

In May, Cuba’s official newspaper, Granma, expressed concern over the possibility that West Nile virus might be soon be transmitted to Cuba via migratory birds – birds returning to Cuba from the United States! It went on to suggest that the U.S. and Cuba might usefully cooperate in confronting the West Nile virus problem. The Cubans are fully aware of the outbreak of the virus in the U.S. and they know that birds have been infected. It is possible that some of those that have been so infected are migratory birds that might show up in Cuba. They do not seem to be suggesting that the CIA or the other usual suspects are responsible for this turn of events. Rather, they would seem to understand that it results from a force of nature not of man – as did the outbreak in Queens. But all the more reason that the U.S. and Cuba should cooperate in addressing the problem. The United States has already been affected and Cuba soon could be.

Unfortunately, the U.S. will doubtless refuse the offer, just as it has refused to enter into agreements with Cuba to cooperate in drug interdiction, control of illegal migrants, and in joint efforts against terrorism. That, in the end, is our loss.

[1] In preparation for this report, CIP interviewed a number of experts: Dr. Andrew Spielman, Professor of Tropical Public Health, Harvard University; Dr. Paul Reiter, a Center for Disease Control entomologist conducting research at Harvard University; Dr. Peter Marra, a terrestrial animal ecologist with the Smihsonian Environmental Research Center; Dr. Al Dupuis, an ornithologist with the Wadsworth Center - New York State Department of Health; Dr. Michael Smith, a fellow with Conservation International’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science.

[2] Carlos Wotzkow and Jaums Sutton. West Nile virus: an inside view. September 9, 2002.

[3] Luis Roberto Hernandez. Some clarifying points on article, Castro weaponizes West Nile virus. September 17, 2002.



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