Virus: Bio-Terrorism Unlikely

New York City officials are downplaying a report the deadly West Nile virus was cultivated by Saddam Hussein as part of a bio-terrorist attack, reports CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin.

A report in Monday's The New Yorker magazine says the CIA is asking the Centers for Disease Control to investigate the outbreak, which has killed six people and sickened more than two dozen others.

Analysts at the CIA who deal with biological weapons said an Iraqi defector had claimed in April that Saddam Hussein was developing a strain of West Nile-like encephalitis for use as a biological weapon, The New Yorker reports.

Mikhael Ramadan claimed that he worked as one of Hussein's body doubles and that Hussein had told him of a plan to develop a strain of West Nile encephalitis that would kill 97 percent of people in an urban environment.

The magazine said Ramadan was believed to be hiding somewhere in Canada or the United States.

The CIA and Centers for Disease Control have dismised the notion the recent outbreak of the West Nile virus was the result of a bio-terrorism attack, but they agree it was a wake up call.

In order to respond quickly, the fire department needs to be better prepared and scientists must develop ways to fight tougher viruses.

According to infectious disease expert and Hot Zone author Richard Preston, the CIA has logged more than 200 threats and attempts of bio-terrorism this year alone.

"We have this report. We can't verify it, we don't take it too seriously. But at the same time we can't possibly dismiss it," he said.

Dr. D.A. Henderson, professor of Epidemiology and director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told CBS This Morning Co-Anchor Russ Mitchell that Hussein would likely choose a more lethal agent instead of the mild West Nile virus.

However, he continued, "any time you have an outbreak that's unusual, or even any outbreak, it ought to be investigated to determine how it might have happened, what you can do in the future to prevent it."

"Nothing indicates that this was anything other than a natural outbreak," Jerome Hauer, the director of the city's emergency management office, said Sunday.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said there was no evidence to suggest the recent outbreak was anything other than "Mother Nature at work."

Symptoms of the strain include fever and headache. In rare cases, the virus can cause neurological disorders and death. The elderly, young and those with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable.

"The threat is very real indeed," says Henderson. "An event within the next decade is a certainty. The question is what might be used as an agent."