Biological Weapons, and World Health
THE Francis Countway Memorial Library is a stone's throw from
Harvard's School of Dental Medicine where I had served on the
faculty. A modem structure of glass and concrete, the building looks
somewhat misplaced amid the grandeur of its centuries old Gothic
marble neighbors. What seemed ironically amusing about the building
is that this tribute to health science learning would be diagnosed
as a "sick building."
After a couple of hours in the Countway,
people commonly became ill. Headaches and dizzyness were the most
frequent symptoms. The graduate students next door at the School of
Public Health always joked that the library was contraindicated for
women in their third trimester of pregnancy. Nevertheless, here's
where I conducted most of my post-doctoral research.
Access to Countway from Boston's
Northshore was relatively painless. An hour's train-ride dropped me
off at the old Boston Garden. Two transfers and a half-hour later I
disembarked the Huntington Avenue street car on Harvard medical
turf. A brief trek through two concrete corridors, a pair of glass
doors, and a guarded gate, and I was at work. The first floor of
Countway is mostly administrative offices, reference books, and
on-line services. Computer literature searches are easily conducted
The Index Medicus and current stacks are
located down an open stairway on the first lower level. Current
periodicals are neatly arranged on display shelves filling the south
side of the gymnasium-size floor. Work desks line the walls and are
in greatest demand on the same sunny side of the room. The older
stacks and copy machines are all in the basement.
There is no natural light here and
barely any oxygen. At the heart of this floor are eight high-speed
copiers. All are almost always in use filling the room with heat and
noise. Faculty and students alike await their turns seated
uncomfortably at the center of the room on cracked black vinyl love
seats. The lights flicker like a strobe. This is Countway's
dungeon-where I accessed the scientific literature dating to the
Sweat and time quickly disappeared here.
Prelude to a Protocol
After our cursory review of early 'WHO Chronicle' reports, my search
was on for articles about biological warfare (BW). There were many.
In February 1967, as international protests resounded against the
Vietnam War, more than 5,000 domestic scientists petitioned
President Lyndon Johnson (and soon thereafter Richard Nixon) to
"reexamine and publicly state" the government's research and
deployment policies on chemical and biological weapons. Their
request was met with stoic silence. Notes from White House science
adviser Donald Hornig to correspondents simply said,
"thank you for
your interest in national security." 
The official government position on
chemical and biological warfare (CBW) had been articulated by Deputy
Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance a year earlier:
"I have indicated that we seek
international understandings to limit chemical and biological
warfare and that we have not used weapons of the sort condemned
by the Geneva protocol. [Though "agent orange," the powerful
defoliant, was being used heavily in Vietnam at that time, only
later was it acknowledged to be highly toxic to humans as well.]
I should also point out that we have at the same time maintained
an active chemical and biological program. In the last few years
we have placed increasing emphasis on defensive concepts and
As long as other nations, such as
the Soviet Union, maintain large programs, we believe we must
maintain our defensive and retaliatory capability. It is
believed by many that President Roosevelt's statement in 1943
which promised "to any perpetrators full and swift retaliation
in kind" played a significant role in preventing gas warfare in
World War II. Until we achieve effective agreement to eliminate
all stockpiles of these weapons, it may be necessary in the
future to be in a position to make such a statement again." 
Between 1967 and 1972, debate raged over whether America's CBW
industry should be scrubbed [2-5] or bolstered.[6,7] Dr. Joshua
Lederberg relayed the consensus of protesters in a 1971 'Science'
"Germ warfare" he wrote, "... has been universally
condemned as a vile perversion of scientific insight. This
emotional reaction is buttressed by a rational consideration of
the strategic and political instabilities that would follow from
threatened uses of biological weapons and of the possibilities
of worldwide spread of infectious disease. In the interest of
world order and to reduce the possibilities of igniting world
conflict, the development, stockpiling, and general
accommodation of biological weaponry must be controlled by
Lederberg, a professor of genetics at
Stanford University's School of Medicine described work in synthetic
small gene assembly. He warned that very soon through "chemical
operations on DNA components," researchers would be able to
synthesize small viruses and engineer their design "to exquisite
He argued that biological weapons stand,
"apart from all other devices in the
actual threat that it poses to the health and life expectancy of
every human being whether or not he is politically involved in
belligerent actions." 
"In a word, the intentional release
of an infectious particle, be it a virus or bacterium, from the
confines of the laboratory or of medical practice must be
condemned as an irresponsible threat against the whole human
"We have learned in recent years that viruses undergo constant
evolution in their own natural history, not only by mutations
within a given strain, but also by the natural
cross-hybridization of viruses that superficially appear to be
only remotely related to one another. Furthermore, many of us
carry viruses in our body cells of which we are unaware for
years and which may be harmless - though they may eventually
cause the formation of a tumor, or of brain degeneration, or of
other diseases. At least in the laboratory, we can show that
such latent viruses can still cross-breed with other viruses to
give rise to new forms..."
"We are all familiar with the process of mutual escalation in
which the defensive efforts of one side inevitably contribute to
further technical development on the other, and vice versa... And the potential undoubtedly exists for the design and
development of infective agents against which no credible
defense is possible, through the genetic and chemical
manipulation of these agents." 
'Nature,' 'Science,' and 'Lancet' published dozens of articles
expressing grave concerns over the fate of humanity should
biological weapons research continue. One such article entitled
"The Biological Bomb," written by an anonymous author, discussed
the ethical implications of biological weapons research - an
industry that lay "at the heart of the cellular nucleus, ticking
us to destruction." 
Dr. V.W. Sidel, a Boston physician,
declared that not only should medical personnel refuse to
participate in such activities, but physicians "must actively
protest against the development, production, and use of biological
weapons." Failure to do so, he argued, represented an insult to the
medical profession, complicity, and one of the greatest dangers to
Scientists could not "retain public esteem if they did nothing about
the present state of the world," declared another protestor. The
delicate balance between good and evil was "changing rapidly" and
the "present juncture" was seen as crucial.  In Britain, several
groups frustrated by the secrecy surrounding experiments conducted
at Porton, England's CBW research facility, lobbied their government
Protestors included Nobel Prize winners
Professor Sir Cyril Powell, Professor H.F. Wilkins, and Dr.
Sanger. All desired to have the Ministry of Health assume
responsibility for Porton from the Ministry of Defense to assure
that 'all CBW research would be strictly defensive.'  Another
English notable, Lord Ritchie-Calder, summoned support for an
international biological weapons accord and haled one group of
scientists who were devoted to preventing diseases over another who
was busy "devising man-made epidemics." 
Likewise, another anonymous author
published in 'Lancet':
"The whole field [of biological
warfare] bristles with difficulties. Organisms for biological
warfare can be produced quickly, cheaply, and easily; many are
required in ordinary and perfectly legitimate ways for
production of vaccines; clandestine research could easily be
conducted; storage is scarcely necessary, for chemical plants
and even breweries could be quickly switched to producing
harmful microorganisms in enormous quantities; and delivery
systems are multiple..."
"The Government could give a sound basis to its Geneva proposal
by declaring all future work carried out at Porton declassified... This would carry especial conviction if... it were
linked to participation with WHO... In 1963 Prof. Roger
M. Herriott of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health,
suggested that the United States should offer to place its
biological laboratories under WHO if Russia and other countries
agreed to do the same. The risks to national security in this
procedure are a good deal less than might be thought, for
despite all the secrecy, it seems to be difficult for any
country to steal a march on another in this sphere where the
essential basic knowledge is so readily obtainable."
"These large and frankly political questions may hardly seem of
pressing concern to the medical profession. But biological
warfare implies a misuse of medical science for which doctors
cannot evade responsibility. Medical knowledge and medical
participation are inherent in most of its projects, and the
profession's silence on this issue is liable to be interpreted
as consent. The secrecy demanded is also contrary to the
principles of medical ethics and is totally rejected in every
other medical activity. If the fetters of secrecy were discarded
and an international orientation adopted, more immediate and
constructive thought could be given to feeding the world's 1000
million under-nourished citizens." 
Though this author's heart was in the
right place, I thought it naive to think that placing all
"biological laboratories under the WHO's control," would have made
any difference. Americans were sharing secrets with the Russians
through the WHO network anyway. Moreover, the WHO made it clear that
security wasn't an issue.
They expressed their objections to
safeguarding DNA research this way:
"The requirements for high security
laboratories may be an inordinate burden (who, in fact will pay
for them?) in relation to the prospective gains. The best
strategy here seems to be the development of safe vectors:
plasmids and bacteria engineered to have little chance of
survival outside the laboratory. In fact, in the long run this
is a safer procedure than relying upon uncertain human
compliance with fixed rules and regulations." 
Discussing the "remaining controversies"
in the field of genetic splicing and hazardous germ development -
techniques that require "rather complicated analyses of the remotest
kinds of risks," WHO reported:
"Those who regard themselves as
guardians of the public safety must count not only the
speculative hazards of these marginal situations, but also the
costs to the public health of impeding their investigation."
"This partly voluntaristic [recommended] approach will not
satisfy a demand for absolute assurance that no foolish
experiment is ever attempted. But the history of human
institutions should suffice to show that no system of sanctions
can have such a perfect outcome." 
These were the WHO's reservations to
safeguarding hazardous gene research despite the fact that the one
who brought the issue of increasing security to the floor of WHO
debate was Professor Lederberg. The world renowned geneticist,
Lederberg, at the time, was serving as a member of the WHO's
Advisory Committee on Medical Research. 
The Proponents of CBW Research
My computer search also revealed that though opponents of CBW
research appeared to outnumber proponents by at least three to one,
the typical BW advocacy position was expressed in numerous
Donald McCrary in Science, for instance,
"What is apparently overlooked and
totally ignored by these petitioners is that [the war in
Vietnam] ... is not an academic exercise divorced from life
and death. It is a very real exercise in how to achieve a goal,
however distasteful, with a minimum of casualties among our own
combat personnel. I believe that any technique, weapon, tactic,
or strategy that will minimize casualties among our combat
personnel is right, and any technique, tactic, or strategy that
preserves the combat effectiveness of our opponent is wrong."
But in March 1970, even WHO consultants
noted that all biological agents permit the danger that if a disease
capable of spreading widely is produced, it may get out of control
and become "a source of disaster to the attacker as well as the
"The viral infections suitable for
use in warfare include yellow fever, tick-borne encephalitis,
Japanese encephalitis, dengue, Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE),
chikungunya, O'nyongnyong, Rift Valley fever, influenza, and
small-pox. Tick-borne encephalitis may be taken as an example of
the agents belonging to this group. Susceptibility is almost
universal, and the ease with which the Far Eastern virus can be
grown in the laboratory and its high infectivity and lethality
by the aerosol route make it likely that a case fatality rate of
25% would be achieved..."
"The attacking country could, of course, attempt to protect
itself, e.g., by immunization, but... more virulent forms of
the organism concerned might develop or the massive doses used
might be such that ordinary levels of immunity would be useless.
Thus it is possible that biological agents may be used
tactically, rather than strategically, to achieve the
simultaneous infection of key groups of people, and the military
consequences might well be of major importance... A decision
to develop chemical and biological weapons implies that they
will ultimately be used." [emphasis added]
The consultants even predicted "a virulent mutant" that could
"spread rapidly to produce an uncontrollable epidemic on a large
scale." In addition, they warned, if mutants were deliberately
produced, there was the "ever-present risk of an accidental
WHO consultants additionally predicted grave psychosocial
consequences of such an escape, including mass hysteria:
"They thus present a real danger
that is conducive to both anxiety and fear. Anxiety in
particular may result from the fact that many chemical and all
biological agents are undetectable by the senses, so that there
are no warning signs to enable people to defend themselves. In
addition, with biological agents, there is the latent period
between infection and illness and the fact that the extent to
which an infection may spread through a community is
unpredictable. As a result, an exposed person cannot be sure
whether he has been infected or know how ill he will be or when
the danger has passed. A further confusing factor is that many
of the symptoms of illness are also symptoms of emotional
That sounded remarkably similar to the
"fear of AIDS epidemic" I had frequently written and talked about.
In the event of an attack, the
"Panic... may be so great that... those who have not been affected will view those who have as
potential agents of disease. The response to a chemical or
biological attack may require precautionary or other measures on
such a scale that extraordinary means of social control will
have to be introduced and these may remain in force long after
the need for them has passed. Thus, an attack may lead to social
changes out of all proportion to the actual damage done."
Isn't that interesting, I thought. They
even predicted social changes like the need to legislate AIDS as a
disability rather than a disease, and requiring infection control
measures that have yet to prove their value in saving costs or
lives. WHO consultants further predicted that the masses would try
to avoid anything that would bring them in contact with deadly
Much of this avoidance was expected to
be disproportionate to the actual risk. In my role as a health
professional AIDS educator, I recalled several similar experiences.
One had occurred a few weeks earlier following a television
interview in Rockford, Illinois. A viewer called me at the station
to express her concern about leaving her house. The last time she
went shopping, she said a storekeeper handed her a box of laundry
detergent. She noticed a few cuts on his hands and refused to touch
him or the box.
She just panicked, left the store, and
hadn't gone shopping since.
"Even though casual contact can't
transmit HIV," I said to the station receptionist, "people are
still afraid-especially of shaking hands with AIDS patients or
Exactly what was predicted, I reflected.
Besides this, the consultants even envisioned extensive health and
medical emergencies as a consequence of a biological attack,
"including mass illnesses, deaths, and epidemics."
They expected that,
"WHO might be called
upon to furnish technical assistance in dealing with allegations
that chemical or biological weapons had been used... and in
achieving disarmament." 
The authors concluded:
"As long as research on the military
use of chemical and biological agents is continued... new
agents of even greater destructive power [may be discovered]... It is clear, therefore, that the best interests of all
Member States, to say nothing of mankind in general, require
that the development and use of chemical and biological agents
as weapons of war be outlawed in all circumstances. The nations
of the world must renounce the use of such weapons, in
accordance with the resolutions on chemical and biological
warfare adopted by
the United Nations General Assembly and the
World Health Assembly." 
Sadly, I realized, their notice fell
before blind eyes. Army medical scientists allegedly wanted vaccines
and diagnostic methods developed quickly in the event of a viral
attack.  Between 1967 and 1968, the Johnson administration
languished amid cries for America's withdrawal from Vietnam. Richard
Nixon was then propelled to the White House and soon thereafter,
toward détente. Superficially, under Nixon, the world seemed safer.
But in the viral research laboratories of the NIH, the "cold war"
During this time, the NCI, under NIH
administrative direction, provided the CDC with prototype
"reagents" - viruses, vaccines, antibodies, and cell lines - as the
American and international viral research program advanced. [21-23]
Who Bit First, the Texan or the Simian?
Once we considered the cold war climate in which bioweapons research
advanced, we reviewed the WHO's written accounts of the NIH's and
NCI's primary role in manufacturing human "prototype" viruses,
including new strains of simian viruses, for world distribution and
In 1969, the WHO Chronicle reported:
"Representative working stocks and... [vaccines] for the various viruses are being prepared and
tested. The distribution of these reagents will be through WHO
or the National Institutes of Health, or on their instructions.
Obviously certain limitations must be imposed on distribution,
as it will be impossible to produce sufficient amounts of the
reagents to send them out indiscriminately.
Reference reagents also have been
prepared in the centre [the WHO immunology laboratories at
Lausanne], as well as in other cooperating laboratories under
the auspices of the Research Reference Reagents Branch and
National Cancer Institute, U.S. National Institutes of Health,
[emphasis added] for many of the prototype human viruses and, to
a more limited extent, for simian viruses. Reagents prepared
against newly recognized simian viruses will be distributed only
to recognized investigators in primate research." 
Another WHO report added:
"As additional means of providing
advanced training, three meetings on the joint activities of WHO
virus reference centers and national virus laboratories have
been held, one in Atlanta in 1967, one in Prague in 1968, and
one in Dakar in 1968. At these meetings most of the time was
devoted to laboratory bench work. They were designed not only to
disseminate information on recent advances and on new techniques
but also to foster closer relations between regional reference
centers and national laboratories." 
"Isn't that nice," Jackie observed, "'closer relations' and germ
warfare method and material exchanges between NATO allies and
communist bloc countries at the height of the cold war," After
another hour of reading, Jackie said "I'm going to bed. Are you
"Wait till you read this," I
replied, "Haven't you had enough for one day?"
"You know the theory that a simian
monkey bite caused an African to get AIDS," I said, "well here's
a report by two doctors from San Antonio that suggests that the
simian may have first been bitten by a Texan,"
"What?" I showed her the article and
pointed to the section that explained that in 1969, WHO
encouraged researchers to use simian monkeys as "animals
phylogenetically close to man," 
They recommended establishing,
"bio-medical systems that will
permit the evaluation of different zoonoses [infections or
infestations shared in nature by man and lower animals to] ...
yield information on human disease," 
"WHO scientists were concerned about
the potential risks of introducing 'a new group or species' of
such animals into research since this might be 'potentially
dangerous' for both the animals and the investigators," I
explained, "They noted that an 'exchange of organisms' might
occur from the laboratory into nature affecting both animals and
man that, 'in most instances, result in in apparent and latent
infections rather than in overt illness,' Here, read this,"
"No, I'm tired, Read it to me in
bed," We marched off to the bedroom, got settled, and then I
began to read, "It says here that 'overt human and non-human
illness is possible,' as it apparently occurred with 'Herpesvirus
simiae disease, Yaba-like disease, and hemorrhagic disease, the
outbreak in Germany associated with African green monkeys, and
the spread of a number of bacterial infections,' " 
"This is nightmare material," Jackie
protested, "Wait," I continued to read:
"The importance of such occurrences is enhanced by the fact that
simians come from diverse geographical areas. A possibility
exists, therefore, that new and exotic agents may be transported
internationally, introducing an unrecognized clinical syndrome
into the animal colonies and perhaps into the human population
as well. Thus, while the use of non-human primates in certain
experimental studies is to be commended, disregard for the
potential problems would be foolhardy indeed." 
"The report goes on to say that despite their concerns, the
authors reported working with various governmental agencies as
well as commercial firms to obtain 'reference seed virus and
specific antisera' for dozens of monkey types and related
diseases. With funding from the NIH and methods and materials
from the NCI, the doctors continued to grow their simian monkey
viruses until the WHO ordained them the 'WHO Collaborating
Laboratory on Comparative Medicine: Simian Viruses.' They're
located at the Southwest Foundation for Research and Education
[currently called the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical
"Listen to their 'specific aims:'"
the development of a working
repository for simian viruses
the provision of a source of
reagents such as certified reference seed virus strains and
the provision of consultation
services, including serum survey data, on the existence of
antibody to various viruses of human and simian origin in
various genera and species of primates
the provision of diagnostic
services, including the identification and characterization
of viruses for primate research workers unable to identify
isolates obtained from their primates (this would also
include screening for human viruses)
the provision of information and
the organization of exchanges of organisms between primate
centers and other health organizations
the training of interested
students in virological laboratory procedures associated
with primate investigations. 
"And here again, they stated they
received their 'working stocks' of viruses and antisera from the
NIH's Research Reference Reagents Branch as well as from the
NCI, and that they were now creating their own new forms of
viruses and vaccines."
"Sounds like a 'clearinghouse' for
simian viruses," Jackie responded with one eye open. "Just what
the world needed. Now can we go to sleep."
"Not yet. Consider the financial
payoff. They already acknowledged working with private
companies. In the late 1960s and early 1970s they stockpiled
everything that might be needed, and undoubtedly lucrative, in
the event of a future simian virus outbreak. They clearly
acknowledged the Marburg virus outbreak in Europe and Africa as
a sign of times to come. It also says they would continue their
'present cooperation with investigators using primates in cancer
"What's interesting," I continued,
"is that they blamed the monkeys for transmitting these newly
discovered viruses which they most plausibly isolated, cultured,
and then inoculated into the animals. Here's how they closed:"
"Perhaps it should be
reemphasized that there is a very practical, important side
to this programme. Recent outbreaks of human and simian
disease in several centers handling simians indicate that
these animals are responsible for the transmission of the
etiological agents." 
"How treasonous," Jackie chuckled.
"The monkeys asked to be jailed so they could later be held
responsible for their crimes against humanity. How dare they
transmit deadly viruses back to the humans who were infecting
I joined in the comic relief. "Yeah.
Maybe instead of three monkeys symbolizing denial, it should be
three NCI virologists with their eyes, ears, and mouths covered.
"The last thing it says is that:"
"It is highly probable that more
such incidents can be expected. The work to be done at the
centre will do much to evaluate and elucidate the situation,
and the centre may be called upon for assistance." 
"That's the best example I think
I've ever heard of successful entrepreneurs creating their own
niche market," Jackie chided.
Early Cancer Research Under WHO
The next morning after getting Alena, now three, off to day care,
Jackie and I reviewed the last of the WHO's viral research reports.
We immediately learned that the WHO's intensified interest in
viruses dated from around 1950 with the initiation of their
"smallpox eradication programme." Initially, a number of countries
"generously donated smallpox vaccine to the WHO Special Account for
Smallpox Eradication," and by 1971, more than 37 million doses had
been distributed with Russian contributions outpacing America's by
more than two-to-one. 
Yet, despite such international
investments, the mammoth undertaking, we learned, returned only
mixed results since many vaccinated countries experienced repeated
outbreaks of deadly smallpox. [25-29] Besides smallpox, the WHO
Chronicle stated the importance of viral infections on cancer as
early as 1965. The WHO's Scientific Group on Viruses and Cancer met
in Geneva that year to plan a common research agenda. The Group,
comprised of international representatives, including three from the
United States and one from Russia, cited the need to study viruses
since cancer cells maintained altered genetic material. [30,31]
Consequently, they recommended attempts
be made "to determine the structural alterations in cellular nucleic
acids," that is, the basic chemical building blocks of all life.
They desired to search for all parts of the virus genome, the
genetic makeup or reproductive blueprint of the viruses, their
chemical reaction triggers, or enzymes, or other "virus-associated
They ordered study of the "specific
changes in the metabolism" of virus infected cells, and wrote:
"Any genetic structure peculiar to
viruses suspected of causing cancer should be identified and
mapped out. Immunological methods might prove of value, since
virus-transformed cells carry antigenic [that is, foreign
chemical] markers... A rust step in such research would be
to induce transformation [cancers] in various experimental
animals with viruses that commonly infect man..." 
"The Group also suggested that, although there is no reason at
present to suspect transmission of animal cancer viruses to man,
any possible relationship that might exist between bovine [cow]
lymphosarcoma [cancer of the lymphatic cells and tissues] or
other mammalian leukemias and human leukemia should be explored,
both by epidemiological studies and by laboratory research on
suspected etiological agents." 
"That's exactly what Strecker alleged brought on the AIDS
epidemic," I said.
Could this research have really created
HIV and AIDS-related diseases like lymphomas and sarcomas?
Hot Viruses During the Cold War
It soon became obvious that by the late 1960s, the WHO's viral
research program shifted into hyperdrive. [32-35] After reading
several papers about their major advances, my attention focused on
additional written confirmation of the USPHS's and the NCI's leading
role in the WHO's viral and cancer research program. Perhaps not
coincidentally, at the exact time the DOD petitioned Congress to
fund their AIDS-like virus project, the WHO announced its center for
viral research and development was the NCI. [36-39]
By 1968 - ten years into their viral
research program - the NCI and WHO reference centers in Copenhagen,
Denmark, and Lausanne, Switzerland, had served as authorized
technical advisers and suppliers of "prototype virus strains,
diagnostic and reference reagents [e.g., antibodies], antigens, and
cell cultures"  for more than "120 laboratories in 35 different
Within a year of this announcement, this
number increased to "592 virus laboratories... [O]nly 137 were
outside Europe and North America." 
Over these twelve months, four of the
most active centers, including the CDC and NCI, distributed,
"2,514 strains of viruses, 1,888
ampoules of antisera mainly for reference purposes, 1,274
ampoules of antigens, and about 100 samples of cell cultures."
More than 70,000 individual reports of
virus isolations or related serological tests had been transmitted
through the WHO network. 
"This sounds like something out of a
James Bond novel." Jackie responded. "I expect to read the word
SPECTRE any minute now."
Instead, we read that the NIH in
Bethesda and the National Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta,
the predecessor of the CDC, had made great progress in testing
vaccines produced in large quantities in horses.
We soon learned
that the horses were actually stabled and tested in Frederick, MD at
Fort Detrick, America's premier biological weapons testing center.
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 In other words, cancerous cells that have been presumably
"transformed" by viral infections can be identified by specific
foreign proteins (called antigens). Interestingly, The Group
noted that these foreign proteins may enter a cell and thus be
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