NET NEWS: Hepatitis Project Sows Seeds for Watching Bioweapons

Science  18 Sep 1998:
Vol. 281, Issue 5384, pp. 1763
DOI: 10.1126/science.281.5384.1763c

A Department of Energy researcher has quietly launched a system for monitoring potential biological weapons testing—while building a unique public health Web site. U.S. and Russian doctors are using the site* to track hepatitis, but Alan Zelicoff hopes a similar project could someday help detect outbreaks from clandestine use of bioweapons.

A physician and weapons control expert at Sandia National Labs in New Mexico, Zelicoff says he wanted to get rival nations to cooperate on monitoring compliance with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention that took effect in 1975. One way to do this, Zelicoff figured, would be to get U.S. and Russian experts working together on a noncontroversial epidemiologic project via the Internet. The survey methodology could later be used to watch for hints of biological weapons, such as a spate of plague cases that might have resulted from a leak at a bioweapons factory. Zelicoff chose to begin by monitoring hepatitis C, an often symptomless disease that causes liver failure. Three hospitals in New Mexico signed up, along with a Russian hospital in Snezhinsk, near the military center of Chelyabinsk.

Since June, medical staffers at all four locations have been conducting random surveys of patients—700 so far—as they enter the hospital, looking for risk factors associated with hepatitis C. Survey responses and diagnostic test results with personal info removed are posted on the Web as they're entered into a database.

The team hopes to publish a paper next year. In the meantime, Zelicoff says, he hopes to sign up another research site—a former biological weapons institute, called VEKTOR, in Siberia.

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