Report: Maine company sold Syria vaccines stockpiled as chemical weapon precursor

Posted Sept. 09, 2013, at 12:59 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 10, 2013, at 7:26 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Winslow company’s illegal sale of vaccines used on birds in the early 1990s has been linked by the New York Times to past efforts by Syria to build up its chemical weapons program. Syria’s ruling regime is accused of using chemical weapons in deadly attacks in Damascus last month.

Cases against the firm, Maine Biological Laboratories, Inc., were resolved in 2005. Since then the company has renamed itself Lohmann Animal Health and come under new management. But according to the New York Times piece published Saturday, Maine Biological Laboratories once illegally shipped biological agents that played a role in an international scheme by the Syrian government to stockpile vast amounts of precursor ingredients — often under the auspices of buying medicines — that can be used to make chemical weapons.

A spokesman for Lohmann Animal Health said in a written statement Monday that the Times’ link between Maine Biological Laboratories and the Syrian chemical weapons program was inaccurate.

“Linking the 2001 Department of Commerce’s issue over the sale of an inactivated poultry vaccine to Syria with the use of poisonous gas and other biological weapons to kill people is totally misleading and categorically false,” read the statement.

Maine Biological Laboratories, Inc., admitted to federal prosecutors in 1995 that among other transgressions, it had illegally provided Newcastle disease vaccines to 22 countries — including Syria — without proper export licenses on 243 occasions between December 1992 and May 1995. Those sales resulted in a letter of reprimand from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Export Enforcement, according to U.S. District Court documents.

Newcastle disease is a contagious bird disease that is transmissible to humans and can cause flu-like symptoms. It is also used for cancer therapy and at one point was researched in the United States as a potential biological weapon before the country halted its biological weapons program, according to several online sources.

In April 2001, Maine Biological Laboratories again violated U.S. trade laws when it sent two shipments of the Newcastle disease vaccines — more than 14 million doses which sold for about $80,000 — to a company in Damascus, Syria. As part of a larger case that also involved smuggling a chicken virus into the United States from Saudi Arabia for the purpose of creating a vaccine, the company was fined $500,000 and eight of its executives and employees served jail sentences in 2005.

The statement from Lohmann Animal Health argued that although the vaccines sent to Syria were restricted by the U.S. Department of Commerce, they were inactivated and virtually harmless to humans.

“This vaccine, which does not contain live organisms, is used worldwide to prevent Newcastle disease in chickens and was invented by Maine Biological Laboratories, Inc. more than six decades ago,” reads the statement. “The vaccine is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is still sold in more than 70 countries, including the U.S., as it was in 2001. … The U.S. Commerce Department is free to call any item they wish ‘restricted,’ even if it is without merit.”

Maine Biological Laboratories was sold and renamed Lohmann Animal Health in the mid-1990s. In recent years, according to a 2011 story in the Waterville Morning Sentinel, the more than 100-employee company has invested millions of dollars in its Winslow facility and produces billions of chicken illness vaccines each year.

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