- Pentagon report says North Korea likely has nuclear tipped missiles
- New technology speeding progress on bird flu vaccine
- Venezuela election to test Chavez's socialist legacy
Posted: 11 Apr 2013 09:15 PM PDT
SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Pentagon spy agency has concluded with "moderate confidence" that North Korea has developed a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, an assessment swiftly dismissed by several U.S. officials and South Korea.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) said such a weapon would probably be unreliable. Its assessment, made public by a U.S. lawmaker in Washington, comes amid threats of war by North Korea and just hours before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Seoul on a visit to the region that will include stops in China and Japan.
South Korean and U.S. officials say Pyongyang appears set to test launch a medium-range missile as a show of strength ahead of the anniversary on Monday of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung.
South Korea's Defence Ministry however said it did not believe North Korea could mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.
Despite the DIA report, the Pentagon's spokesman and the U.S. national intelligence director both said it was "inaccurate" to infer Pyongyang had the proven ability to launch a nuclear missile.
The DIA was criticised after the start of the Iraq war in 2003 for being too bullish in predicting Baghdad might have weapons of mass destruction.
Its conclusion about North Korea follows more than a month of rising tension on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea, claiming the United States is planning to invade, has threatened Washington and Seoul with nuclear war, although most experts say Pyongyang has no intention of starting a conflict that would likely bring its own destruction.
"DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low," Republican Representative Doug Lamborn said during a hearing of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee in Washington.
He was quoting a report entitled "Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program (March 2013)".
A U.S. official said the quotation cited by Lamborn was in a section that had been erroneously marked unclassified. The study, dated last month, appeared to be the first time the agency had reached such a conclusion.
QUESTION OF MINIATURISATION
Seoul played down the report.
"Our military's assessment is that the North has not yet miniaturised," South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told a news briefing.
"North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests but there is doubt whether it is at the stage where they can reduce the weight and miniaturise to mount on a missile."
Pyongyang has frequently cited the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as a reason it needed nuclear weapons, saying that without them, Washington would seek to topple its government too.
The United Nations sanctioned North Korea for a nuclear test on February 12, its third, sparking a furious response from Pyongyang. The North has also called annual military drills between U.S. and South Korean forces a "hostile" act.
North Korea has stationed as many as five medium-range missiles on its east coast, according to defence assessments by Washington and Seoul. South Korean and U.S. officials believe it is preparing to launch a Musudan missile, whose range of 3,500 km (2,100 miles) or more would put Japan within striking distance and may threaten Guam, home to U.S. military bases.
The debate about North Korea's nuclear ability focuses on whether it has a warhead small enough to mount on a missile and whether it can then ensure that missile re-enters the earth's atmosphere.
North Korea last tested a long-range rocket in December. It launched the rocket into space for the first time but the rocket did not successfully re-enter.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said "it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage" of the DIA report.
The conclusion of the DIA was not shared by the wider U.S. intelligence community, U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said in a statement.
The strong consensus inside the U.S. government is that North Korea does not yet have a nuclear device that would fit longer-range missiles that conceivably could hit the U.S. mainland.
Civilian experts have also said there was no evidence North Korea had tested the complex art of miniaturising a nuclear weapon to be placed on a long-range missile, a capability the United States, Russia, China and others achieved decades ago.
Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst now with the Arms Control Association advocacy group, said that while he did not have access to the classified material cited in Congress, what was said publicly about DIA's assessment sounded quite tentative.
"It really says to me that this is a speculative statement," Thielmann said. "Moderate (confidence) is higher than low confidence but it doesn't say they know very much."
Lamborn, the congressman, said the DIA reached the conclusion in a mostly classified March 2013 report. He did not say what range the nuclear-capable North Korean missiles might have.
U.S. spy agencies believe the threats of war from North Korea mainly represent an effort by new leader Kim Jong-un to demonstrate he is in command, Clapper said on Thursday.
New South Korean President Park Geun-hye said late on Thursday she was open to resume dialogue with the North and would continue to offer humanitarian aid.
Her long-standing policy is that the North needs to abandon its nuclear programme before it gets aid.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Daum Kim in SEOUL, Sui-Lee Wee in BEIJING, John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI, and Patricia Zengerle, Mark Hosenball and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Dean Yates; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)Pentagon report on North Korea nuclear capabilities stirs worry, doubts
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 11 Apr 2013 08:13 PM PDT
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Even as U.S. officials this week awaited the arrival of a sample of the new bird flu virus from China - typically the first step in making a flu vaccine - government-backed researchers had already begun testing a "seed" strain of the virus made from the genetic code posted on the Internet.
This new, faster approach is the result of a collaboration among the U.S. government, vaccine maker Novartis and a unit of the J. Craig Venter Institute, which is using synthetic biology - in which scientists take the genetic code of the virus and use it as a recipe to build the virus from scratch.
It was an idea born in the aftermath of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, in which production delays and poor-quality seed strain slowed delivery of the vaccine until October, late enough that people were already sick with swine flu.
The new method has shaved two weeks off the vaccine-making process. It will take five to six months to ramp up production, but even weeks could make a difference in the case of a potentially deadly flu pandemic, said Robin Robinson, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority or BARDA.
"We'll take it," said Robinson, whose agency handles pandemic preparedness as part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "If the virus turns out to be a tough one, that could be very important."
At least 33 people have been infected and 10 have died from the strain of bird flu known as avian influenza A (H7N9) first found in humans last month. So far, the strain does not appear capable of being passed from person to person.
But Chinese researchers, in a report published online on Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, warned that the sudden emergence of this strain of flu "may pose a serious human health risk" and said "appropriate counter measures were urgently required."
An especially deadly strain of bird flu in 2003 known as H5N1 had already raised the threat of a global pandemic, spurring more than $2 billion in government contracts to shore up U.S. flu vaccine manufacturing capabilities.
After the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, U.S. health agencies gathered to do some soul searching. Representatives from BARDA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health looked for ways to expedite the process of making flu vaccines, Robinson said.
These advances would need to apply to all vaccine makers, whether they used the traditional method of growing the virus in live chicken eggs, or the newer methods of growing it in cells or vaccines made from genetically engineered proteins.
Robinson, who formerly headed the vaccines division at Novavax Inc, had seen firsthand the speed at which a vaccine could be made using synthetic biology during the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, when companies and governments rushed to make a vaccine.
So, in 2010, BARDA tapped Novartis, one of its vaccine partners, along with a company owned by Dr. J. Craig Venter, the flamboyant scientist who took part in the race to map the human genome and caused a stir in 2010 when he used synthetic genes to create a custom microbe and bring it life.
As a test drive for the new flu technology, in 2011 the government gave its partners the genetic sequence for a North American strain of H7N9, a similar virus to the one making people sick in China. "It was just a coincidence," Robinson recalls.
In less than two weeks, Novartis and Venter's group were ready to make virus seed. The next year, they sequenced an H5N1 virus and produced a synthetic virus in six days.
Then came a live test. The United States asked its partners to make a real vaccine for a variant of swine flu known as H3N2 that had been infecting children in the U.S. Midwest last year.
Once again, they produced virus seed in less than a week.
So, when Chinese health authorities released the genetic sequence for the H7N9 bird flu on March 30, U.S. health officials decided to try the new technique.
Novartis and Venter's company, Synthetic Genomics Vaccines Inc, went to work and by April 4, they had synthetic DNA ready and had started to grow the virus in cells, long before samples of the actual virus arrived from China on April 11.
Normally, getting a sample would be the starting point for making a seed virus, which would then be grown and tested to ensure it would grow well in chicken eggs or cells.
That involves a certain amount of guesswork, however. The new process of building the virus based on its genetic code allows "almost guaranteed success," said Mike Shaw, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"That is because you're creating a virus that is almost tailor-made," he said.
Shaw said the CDC plans to take a vaccine candidate at least to the stage of human safety trials, a process that will take several months.
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 11 Apr 2013 07:01 PM PDT
CARACAS (Reuters) - The late Hugo Chavez's self-declared socialist revolution will be put to the test at a presidential election on Sunday that pits his chosen successor against a younger rival promising change in the nation he polarized.
Most opinion polls give his protege, acting President Nicolas Maduro, a strong lead over opposition challenger Henrique Capriles thanks to Chavez's endorsement and the surge of grief and sympathy over his death from cancer last month.
The candidates closed out official campaigning on Thursday with duelling rallies, both drawing hundreds of thousands of boisterous supporters. Taking a page out of Chavez's playbook, a fiery Maduro marched through the streets of the capital draped in a Venezuelan flag and called on voters to follow "commander Chavez as the spiritual guide of the fatherland."
"I am the son of Chavez," the burly 50-year-old former bus driver shouted to supporters in downtown Caracas. "I am ready to be your president."
Waving posters of the late president, the crowd sang back the campaign slogan, which rhymes in Spanish: "Chavez, I swear to you, I'll vote for Maduro!"
Capriles, an energetic 40-year-old state governor, wrapped up his second presidential campaign in seven months - he lost to an ailing Chavez last October - in the nearby city of Barquisimeto, pledging to end the divisive politics of the late president's 14-year rule and the rampant crime that is the top concern of Venezuelans.
"Those who govern today have never done anything for your security. Sunday we're going to choose between life and death," Capriles roared to the crowd. "If you want a future, you have to vote for change, for a different government."
At stake is control of the world's biggest crude oil reserves, economic aid to a host of left-leaning governments around Latin America, and the legacy of what Chavez liked to call "21st century socialism" - a mix of hard-left politics, heavy government spending on the poor, and growing state control over the economy.
The presidential vote will be the first time that Chavez isn't on the ballot in two decades, but in many ways the election is all about him. Maduro has cast himself as Chavez's "first apostle" and has sought to emulate his former boss's fiery rhetoric on the campaign trail.
At every rally, Maduro has played a video of Chavez giving him his blessing in an emotional last speech to the OPEC nation of 29 million people before he succumbed to a two-year battle with cancer on March 5.
Keenly aware of Chavez's cult-like following among the poor, Capriles has spent much of the campaign denying Maduro's claims that he would get rid of the oil-funded social spending that was the cornerstone of the late president's popularity. He has also sought to court Chavez supporters by promising to raise wages by 40 percent.
If Maduro wins, he will face big challenges from day one as he seeks to control the disparate ruling coalition without his predecessor's dominant personality or the robust state finances that helped Chavez win re-election last year.
Capriles would face an even tougher landscape if he wins. Chavez's rule thoroughly transformed Venezuela, and nearly all of the country's institutions - from ministries and government agencies to the military and state oil giant PDVSA - are packed with die-hard Chavez supporters.
Capriles touched a nerve with scathing attacks on Maduro and others whom he denounced as "skin-deep revolutionaries." He accused them of betraying Chavez's legacy by filling their pockets while paying only lip service to his ideology.
Maduro, meanwhile, has painted his rival as a pampered rich kid who represents a wealthy and venal Venezuelan elite - and their "imperial" financial backers in Washington.
A descendant of European Jews on his mother's side, Capriles comes from a wealthy family, but has sought to project a man-of-the-people image riding into slums on his motorcycle and nearly always wearing a baseball cap.
Maduro, a former member of a rock band and a union activist, rose to be Chavez's foreign minister and vice president, but has been playing up his modest roots at rallies, frequently calling onto stage fellow workers whom he recognizes.
The campaign has been characterized by personal attacks from both candidates, plus a dose of surrealism from the folksy Maduro. While visiting Chavez's hometown, Maduro said he was visited by the late leader's spirit in the form of a little bird, a claim that was mocked by the opposition as crass populism.
Maduro poked fun at the opposition at his closing rally by perching a bird on his shoulder, a gesture that drew roaring cheers from the crowd, which included Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, who flew in to support Maduro.
In another bizarre turn, Maduro also warned anyone thinking of voting for his rival that they would bring down a centuries-old curse upon themselves, playing on the fertile mix of animist and Christian beliefs in Venezuela's plains and jungles.
In a nation where Chavez's confrontational rhetoric helped fuel deep mistrust between his supporters and the opposition, both political camps have repeatedly accused the other of dirty tricks and fomenting violent plans.
Loyal "Chavistas" often accuse the opposition of plotting a re-run of a brief coup against Chavez a decade ago, while the Capriles camp says the government is shamelessly using state resources to try to ensure Maduro's triumph.
Maduro has accused the opposition of planning to use mercenaries to kill him and sabotage the electricity grid, and also accused the U.S. government of plotting to kill Capriles and then blame it on his administration to sow chaos.
Capriles said those kind of shrill claims are an echo of the worst of Chavez's rule, and only aim to spread distrust and fear. Chavez himself often unveiled supposed assassination plans targeting him, which critics dismissed as cynical efforts to keep voters on a war footing and distract them from daily worries such as violent crime, inflation and corruption.
Capriles also sees the hand of Cuba's Castro brothers - close allies of the late Chavez - in Maduro's campaign.
"You can win the elections in Havana. I'm going to win them here in Venezuela," Capriles said in one of his final speeches.
The challenger is touting a Brazil-style model that blends pro-business policies with strong spending on social welfare projects, and he says Maduro's tenure as acting leader has only added to people's problems with a devaluation and new currency controls.
Capriles says that if he wins he will stop "gifting" Venezuela's oil wealth to other nations, and will cool ties with distant Chavez-era allies such as Syria, Belarus and Iran.
The U.S. government will be watching the vote closely in the hope of better relations after years of tensions with Chavez.
Many Venezuelans say they will stay true to the dying wish of their "commander" and vote for Maduro, whatever they may feel about how he stacks up as successor to the towering Chavez.
"I loved and still love commander Chavez and I defend the revolution. I believe in Nicolas. The commander chose him for a reason," said Aritza Beltran, a 30-year-old teacher in Caracas.
(Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo and Diego Ore; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Simao)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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