The biological agents that a Maine company illegally exported to Syria a decade ago could not have been used to create a biological weapon for use against poultry, said a poultry-disease specialist who is familiar with the substances.
Maine Biological Laboratories of Winslow, now a division of the German firm Lohman Animal Health GmbH, shipped 14 million doses of its vaccine for the Newcastle disease, a pathogen that’s deadly to chickens and other commercial poultry, to a Syrian company in 2001 and early 2002. At the time, such exports required a special license because Syria was suspected of being a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Portland Press Herald reported Sept. 10 that the Newcastle disease virus was not believed to have any connection to Syria’s chemical weapons program, contrary to what was intimated by a New York Times article published Sept. 7.
It also presents no danger to humans. Instead, the virus has been of interest to researchers who have sought to create bioweapons for use against an opponent’s poultry industry and, thus, its wartime food supply.
But Newcastle disease vaccines almost certainly would not have been useful for bioweapons researchers, said Jarra Jagne, a poultry extension veterinarian at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine.
Jagne, who is familiar with the disease, said the inactivated virus in the vaccines first would have to be resuscitated somehow, to be helpful to a weapons program. “At this stage of technology, I don’t know of any way a killed vaccine could be brought back to life,” she said.
Also, Jagne said, vaccines are made from a weak strain of the disease, because more lethal strains kill the fertilized chicken eggs in which vaccines are grown.
“The Newcastle virus everyone is afraid of is called exotic Newcastle, and it is present all over the world,” Jagne said. “(Weapons researchers) wouldn’t need to go to the trouble to get it from a vaccine.
They could just go to a farm in another country and get a vial of exotic Newcastle virus.”
It is not clear why the federal government was concerned about exportation of the Newcastle vaccine to Syria. Repeated inquiries to the relevant agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security, failed to elicit an answer.
Over the past 11 days, the Press Herald approached several bioweapons experts in an effort to determine whether, and in what ways, inactivated Newcastle disease virus in a vaccine would be useful to bioweapons researchers. Each expert declined to answer or recommended someone with more specialized knowledge of the disease.
On Sept. 9, Jeff Butler, a spokesman for Lohman Animal Health, was asked about the utility of killed viruses to anti-poultry weapons makers but did not respond.
Several days later, the company sent a written statement saying it does not believe that the vaccines it sent to Syria could have been weaponized.
“Inactivated vaccines are dead and cannot be used for seed for biological weapons or any other purpose other than to produce protective immunity in chickens,” the company wrote. “We do not know of any way for this innocuous, sterile fluid to be used as a biological weapon against man or animal.”
The company also said that its action — shipping Newcastle disease vaccines to Syria without proper permits — was “a regulatory infraction” and “not a felony.” It described the incident as “a misinterpretation on the part of the company of a very complex regulation and not a willful illegal act.”
The company used similar language in a column published this week in Lewiston’s Sun Journal newspaper, in response to a Bangor Daily News story that the Sun Journal published.
Federal records show that Maine Biological Laboratories agreed to pay a $100,000 civil penalty to the Bureau of Industry and Security in 2005 to settle a dozen regulatory charges related to its export of “vaccines containing the Newcastle disease virus” to Syria.
The settlement agreement — signed by David Zacek, then the president of Lohman Animal Health — also says the company sold the vaccines “with knowledge that violations of the regulations would occur.”
Additionally, the shipments to Syria appear as one of six counts against the company in a simultaneous criminal case. Federal court records show that the company pleaded guilty to the fifth of those counts, which charged that it “knowingly failed” to obtain required licenses for a shipment to Syria of more than 10 million doses of the Newcastle disease vaccine. In the criminal judgment, it is described as a violation of the federal Export Administration Act.
The federal prosecutor in the case, Toby Dilworth, told the Press Herald that the count was a “criminal charge, and MBL pleaded guilty to it. In doing so, they admitted that they committed the offense.”
The company was ordered to pay a $500,000 fine to settle that and five other counts, which included a range of criminal charges related to shipments of live avian influenza viruses from Saudi Arabia.
Also, eight of the company’s former executives pleaded guilty to smuggling, mail fraud and conspiracy related to the Saudi shipments, and several received prison sentences.
Asked about the criminal charge related to the Syrian shipment, the company reasserted in a statement Wednesday that it was guilty only of regulatory infractions. It did not provide supporting information.
“It is obvious that former employees of Maine Biological Laboratories made decisions that, either by ignorance or intention, were wrong and illegal,” the company said of the other criminal charges related to the Saudi shipments. “Lohmann has removed those individuals and the company today operates in a very different way.
“The point is that in neither case was there ever any intent, possibility, or accusation of the company delivering what could be used as biological or chemical weapons to any country,” it said.
In the statement to the Press Herald and in its column in the Sun Journal, the company said that because of the media coverage, “our company’s reputation and employees’ morale were damaged. In addition, violent actions have been suggested against our company.”
Lohman also described changes it has made since acquiring Maine Biological Laboratories to ensure regulatory compliance, including training by outside consultants on export rules, the hiring of a dedicated compliance officer, and regular internal and external audits.