plague war
Interview: dr. timothy stamps
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Stamps is the Minister of Health, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia)

His country may have been the world's first modern victim of biological warfare.



Why have you ordered an investigation into the use of biological warfare against Rhodesia?

Because there are certain infectious conditions that have come to my notice over the period of the hostilities that are, to say the least, very strange. The evidence is very clear that these were not natural events. Whether they were caused by some direct or deliberate inoculation or not, is the question we have to answer.

The DoD concluded recently that the biological warfare threat was  one area in which the US has found itself to be the most vulnerable. This was said repeatedly at a symposium on the subject  held in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 1998. More than 2,000 delegates from 70 countries were present, many of them military officers. What particular biological agents are we talking about?

I'm talking about anthrax and cholera in particular, but also a couple of viruses that are not endemic to Zimbabwe [such as] the Ebola type virus and, we think also, the Marburg virus. We wonder whether in fact these are not associated with biological warfare against this country during the hostilities. It's quite coincidental, and a very interesting coincidence, that the height of the infection should occur when the hostilities were at their height.

Now you've studied the epidemiology of all these possible agents. Let's start with anthrax. Anthrax is indigenous in Zimbabwe.

Yes, but when you have an annual incidence of around two dozen or less for a period of about twenty years, and then you suddenly get a spike of 10,000 in 1979-1980, there's some extraneous influence at work. And this coincided with the intensification of the struggle right toward the end, just before independence.

You're saying that it is epidemiologically inconceivable that you can have an average of 24 cases a year that then spikes to 10,000 in the next two years.

I think it is very unlikely ... I haven't heard of it.

What about cholera? Cholera too is endemic in certain parts of Africa.

We've looked at the records right back to the date of occupation and there have never been any outbreaks of cholera until 1975 and that coincided with the introduction of cholera in East Africa. It's very interesting that it occurred so quickly after the introduction, particularly during a period of hostility when movement was severely restricted in the eastern districts of this country.

Now what else was it about the pattern of the cholera outbreaks that has made you suspicious?

If the [outbreaks] had been endemic or if they had been natural, we would have expected them to continue and recur, and certainly with the health services in the disarray that they were toward the end of the war, we wouldn't have expected them to come under control in [such a] quick period. In fact, one of the people who studied cholera in Southeast Asia remarked to me on the 1993 outbreak, that he was surprised that we had got cholera under control within three months and eliminated it within seven.

That just wouldn't happen if it were an endemic outbreak.

Well, even it if were suppressed it would recur, and it has not until very recently and these are new imported cases.

Now, you were talking about Marburg, Ebola and bubonic plague. What evidence do you have on these agents?

Again, the interesting feature is that they are focal, they are not generalized, and plague tends to spread very rapidly--bubonic plague--because it's carried by a flea, and the rats which carry the fleas are a natural wild animal in Southern Africa and yet it occurred in just one area, and it has recurred in just that one area. That again was an area where there was intense fighting between the forces of liberation and the freedom fighters.

Ebola was along the line of the Zambezi [River], and I suspect that this may have been an experiment to see if a new virus could be used to directly infect people. Interestingly, Ebola has not been established as having a known victim in Africa.

What evidence, in terms of the number of cases, and again the epidemiology of it ...

We looked back at serological tests on strange cases which occurred around 1980, and found nine cases including a fifteen-year-old child, who showed serological evidence.

Who do you believe could have been responsible for the introduction of these biological agents?

That is really outside my capacity to conjecture. But we know that it could not have been the Rhodesian forces acting on their own, they didn't have the logistics ... we know that there was a tremendous amount of support from the apartheid regime because they were intensely concerned that if this country became independent and democratized, it wouldn't be long before apartheid fell apart ... I think this was introduced by foreign agencies probably through South Africa and probably by the South Africans in order to use Zimbabwe as a mechanism for protecting their apartheid regime against the overwhelming freedom movement which was threatening the structure of apartheid.

You have ordered an investigation, some of those results are up, is there any doubt in your mind?

In my own mind there is no doubt that there were deliberate attempts to inoculate our country with those organisms. It's a deliberate attempt at destroying a population. I would put it on the same level as ethnic cleansing.

You are aware, of course, of the current criminal proceedings against Dr. Wouter Basson in South Africa. Do you believe that there could be a connection between South Africa's Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) program, which was known as Project Coast, and the possible use of your country as a test bed?

Certainly, because all the areas which were affected were areas adjacent to areas of South African control and influence.

Do you have any prima facie evidence of a connection to South Africa--any of this at all which you can present now?

None at all ... I think it's going to be very difficult to get concrete evidence. All the evidence will be circumstantial, but I think there will be people still alive who can be identified as knowing what actually happened.

If the people who are still alive are identified and the evidence is there, what do you believe should be done with these people, in terms of justice?

I think this is the highest form of inhuman murder ever known to man. It is targeted indiscriminately, mostly at innocent civilians and without any regard as to the future. Anthrax, for example, will remain contaminating our soil for at least the next fifty years, and we do not have the resources to remove it. There has been another outbreak of anthrax in the same area very recently, and we are sure that is because of spores left over from the previous epidemic.

How are you going to get rid of anthrax in Zimbabwe? You don't know how or where it was sown. You know it stays in the earth for up to 50, 60, 70 years ... how are you going to get rid of it?

Yes, I think that is a very difficult problem. In fact, the wild animals have now been infected, we've had antelopes who have anthrax, we have evidence of elephants who have developed anthrax. When it is as widespread as that, detecting it and eliminating it is a major task outside the capacity of a small country like Zimbabwe.

Anthrax is not readily available; where do you think the original spores came from?

I'm sure it was a laboratory-devised virulent type because there are some anthrax bacilli which are not particularly virulent, and I suspect that they were responsible for the sporadic cases we had in the thirty years before the major epidemic, and one suspects that these were specifically developed as a weapon against an overwhelming number of people who were regarded as enemies to those who occupied power at the time. If you can destroy a person's cattle, you can destroy his livelihood, if you can kill a few people in the process, then you can subjugate a large number of people. That is the evil of biological warfare.

The world has recently become very aware of the use and dangers of biological warfare given the events in Iraq, etc. You've had it used here in Zimbabwe. What lessons are there for mankind in what you are undergoing now?

I get very worried about things like the big powers wanting to retain the smallpox virus. For what reason? ... [I] think it is quite wrong that Russia and the United States still retain the virus of smallpox. Smallpox has been eliminated from the world in 1978, there can be no medical justification for continuing to retain even the smallest amount of smallpox virus unless people have an intention to use it as a potential backup to a war situation.

We also need a lot more transparency on medical experimentation on the sorts of things like developing genetic processes. Even cloning really frightens me because of the possibility of genetic introduction of materials which are undesirable into particular unsuspecting communities.

As possibly the world's first modern victim of biological warfare, do you have a political view at all about the Biological Warfare Convention (BWC)? Its intention is benign and good, but there's no way of really inspecting it, there's no verification method. If you had the ear of the right people, what would you say to them now about the BWC?

The contrast between the approach to the Iraqis and the approach to the general issue of biological warfare material held by other countries is so stark as to be frightening. Why are people concealing the fact that other countries have elements of biological warfare, and admit to having them, and these are not controlled or destroyed and the factories which are producing them are [not] eliminated?

So would you like to see an international inspectorate with real powers of immediate, sudden and unannounced entry?

Exactly.

And do you believe that something should be done about the international availability of these biological agents, that it should be stopped?

Absolutely, it should be an absolute prohibition, not a gentle code of practice or piece of advice. I am particularly incensed that my country has been used as a laboratory for evaluating the effectiveness of biological weapons on my people, my African people, and this is something which in my view is totally unforgivable.


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