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Ricin: How great is the threat?

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

Davis: Ricin is not a mass casualty weapon

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start quoteSomewhere out there is a biological weapon called ricin. We don't know how much, and we don't know who has got it, and we don't know where they are going to use it.end quote
-- Malcolm Davis
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- CNN International's Tony Campion spoke to Malcolm Davis, Strategic and Defence Analyst at King's College, London, about the threat posed by the discovery of traces of ricin at a flat in North London.

Campion: How much is ricin a psychological agent to use as a weapon of terror?

Davis: It's designed to be used either as a weapon of assassination against an individual, or as a weapon to be used in a constrained environment, such as an underground subway, or a supermarket, against a small group of people. It's not like smallpox, which is highly infectious and would kill large numbers of people very quickly. It's more like the anthrax attacks that occurred immediately after the September 11 attacks of 2001, than for example a massive attack with smallpox.

Campion: Is it a surprise that it was apparently possible to make this poison in an a flat?

Davis: No, it's very easy to make ricin. I'm not going to tell you how to make it, because people would be listening, but essentially it is a very simple process, and you can make a substantial quanitity of ricin from easily available precursor materials, and then use that poison however you see fit.

Campion: Some people have talked about how difficult this material is to distribute. Is it a real threat to London, or anywhere on the planet?

Davis: The problem is that what we have found is the residue of the ricin on the production process, we haven't found the ricin itself. So somewhere out there is a biological weapon called ricin. We don't know how much, and we don't know who has got it, and we don't know where they are going to use it. However if it was used it would be used in a limited way because it is not a mass casualty weapon. It is designed to be used either as a targeted assassination weapon, or in the limited space, like an underground, a supermarket, or a building.

Campion: What are the symptoms, and what would the unfortunate victims go through?

Davis: Within three hours of inhalation, you start to cough, very flu-like symptoms, you have heavy coughing, nausia, diarrhoea, aches and pains, but within 36 to 48 hours you have dramatic swelling of the circulatory system and the lungs which stops you breathing and unfortunately there is no antidote or vaccine.

Campion: Is it almost a surprise that terrorists haven't focussed on ricin before?

Davis: Well the Iraqis have a ricin production capability, the UNSCOM inspectors in 1997 found it, but it was never destroyed so the chances are they've still got it. We also know that al Qaeda had been experimenting with and it could be that this group could be associated with al Qaeda. And of course there was the case of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov who was assassinated in 1979. So there have been cases of uses of ricin in the past, and it is a highly usable weapon, it's just not a mass casualty weapon like anthrax or plague or smallpox are.

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