FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 25, 2002
Contact: Wayne Smith, Anya Landau: 202-232-3317
CIP REFUTES WEST NILE-CUBAN MIGRATORY BIRDS
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. The carriers, then, could not have been birds from Cuba.
One exile writer, Carlos Wotzkow, 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
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
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.”
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
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
to cooperate in drug interdiction, control of illegal migrants, and in joint
efforts against terrorism. That, in the end, is our loss.