Senator Raises Possibility of Terrorist Link to West Nile

A senator who was the target of an anthrax-laden envelope sent to his Washington office last year has raised the possibility that terrorists may be responsible for the spread of another disease: the West Nile virus.

Sen. Patrick Leahy called on the government to examine whether terrorism is involved in a West Nile outbreak that has killed 54 people this year.

"I think we have to ask ourselves: Is it coincidence that we're seeing such an increase in West Nile virus or is that something that's being tested as a biological weapon against us?" Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday.

The Vermont Democrat made the remarks on a radio talk show broadcast on WKDR in Burlington and WDEV in Waterbury. In a statement issued later by his office, Leahy said he could point to no specific evidence that the outbreak of the mosquito-borne virus was linked to terrorism.

A spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that there is no evidence to suggest an act of bioterrorism.

The spokesman, Tom Skinner, said the cycle of the disease and its transmission -- from mosquitoes to birds and to people -- is what one would expect with West Nile. "All of that points to this being a naturally occurring outbreak," he said.

According to the CDC, nationally, 1,295 people have contracted the disease and 54 have died.

Leahy's office also released excerpts Thursday from previous news and congressional committee reports saying officials had downplayed the fear that the spread of West Nile virus might be the work of bioterrorists.

"In the times in which we live, questions about our vulnerabilities are unavoidable, and finding all the answers we can is more important than ever," Leahy said in the statement. "I have no way of knowing what the answers are, but some legitimate questions have been asked, especially before September 11 last year, and no doubt they are being asked anew by the agencies that are working on this."

West Nile first appeared in the United States in 1999 when an outbreak in New York killed seven people. That October, The New Yorker magazine published an article focusing on a book by an alleged Iraqi defector, who said Saddam Hussein may have developed a lethal strain of the virus to use as a biological weapon.

A report issued in July 2000 by the minority staff of the Senate Government Affairs Committee said "law enforcement, public health, and intelligence officials have investigated the possibility that West Nile virus resulted from a bioterrorist attack but believe that this is very unlikely."