EX-SOVIET BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS LAB IN DEMAND
04 Nov 2002
Source: Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2002.
Ex-Soviet Biological Weapons Lab Finds Itself In Demand
Dow Jones Newswires
OBOLENSK, Russia (AP)--The Soviet Union once ran a mammoth program to develop biological weapons for possible use against its enemies in the West. Today, some of the top scientists from that program are working with the West to build defenses against bioterrorism.
Western governments may harbor suspicions about secret programs still being pursued in Russia, and there are worries about former Soviet bioweapons experts being lured to work for states like Iraq, yet Russia and the West are now allies in the war against terrorism, and the emphasis is on cooperation.
One of the cogs in the Soviet bioweapons program was the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology in Obolensk, about 85 kilometers south of Moscow.
It has one of the world's biggest collections of anthrax, working with about 30 live strains and perhaps 10 times as many variants. It is one of the premier repositories of expertise on anthrax and other pathogens, and has become a key collaborator with U.S. scientists.
Obolensk scientists already are working on genetically altered antibodies that could block the anthrax toxin, a project financed by the European Union, and they are involved in a program to exchange strains with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. In November, President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush signed an unprecedented agreement to encourage collaborative biodefense research.
"Today, our center is in demand in Russia, the United States and Europe for the very reason it was created: to develop methods of prompt detection of biological agents, elaboration of identification methods, preventive measures and treatment," said Vladimir Volkov, the institute's first deputy director.
Volkov and other Obolensk scientists skirt the other reason the institute was founded: to develop ever more deadly germs for warfare. Soviet researchers at Obolensk and other institutes experimented with about 50 biological agents, including anthrax, smallpox and plague.
Western governments are concerned that former Soviet scientists could now sell their expertise to some of the dozen states believed to be conducting illicit bioweapons programs.
At least 7,000 former Soviet scientists, the vast majority of them in Russia, are considered to be of "critical proliferation risk," said Amy Smithson, an expert on chemical and biological weapons control at the Henry Stimson Center in Washington.
Those scientists are felt to have sufficient knowledge as to be able potentially to advance the biological weapons programs of such countries as Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya.
There is also some concern about four biological institutes in the Russian Ministry of Defense that foreign inspectors have never been allowed to enter. One is being transferred to the Ministry of Education, suggesting it will soon be open, but U.S. officials say privately they are concerned that some elements of a small-scale, offensive biological weapons program might be continuing in Russia.
"They don't seem to be as transparent or open about all their activities as you would expect them to be. So the question is, is something going on that shouldn't be?" said Michael Moodie, president of the non-governmental Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Washington.
Moscow long hid its program. After the Soviet Union signed a 1972 treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons, the government launched the world's largest biological weapons effort.
Part of the program, including Obolensk, was hidden under a nominally civilian but secret front called Biopreparat, which worked both on weapons and on biological agents employed for peaceful uses, such as medicines and pesticides.
Two top Biopreparat officials, the late Nikolai Pasechnik and Kanatjan Alibekov, who now goes by the name Ken Alibek, defected to the West. They revealed the huge dimensions and scientific advances of the germ weapons program, including development of super-resistant strains that could overcome existing Western vaccines and antidotes.
Inspectors from the U.S. and Britain were able to confirm some of the defectors' testimony in trips negotiated with then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's government, and the program apparently began winding down in the late 1980s.
In 1992, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced an end to the Soviet biological warfare program and cut off government funds. Entire biological weapons facilities such as the testing ground on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea were abandoned while others tried, often unsuccessfully, to convert to civilian work. Many scientists lost their jobs - and some were courted by foreign states.
"When we talk about these rogue states being familiar with biological weapons, that may be due to some participation of ours," said Igor Domaradskij, who was a deputy director at Obolensk for five years in the mid-1980s.
Domaradskij said he personally didn't know any former Soviet scientists who had gone abroad in search of laboratory work, but he did know of some who had taught.
"I know that in the mid-'90s several quite prominent scientists - genetic scientists whom I do not want to name -prepared personnel for Iran," he said. "But I think that ended several years ago."
Western nations have tried to encourage former Russian bioweapons specialists to stay home through such programs as the nine-year-old International Science and Technology Center, which finances research and matches scientists in the former Soviet Union with foreign partners.
Randall Beatty, the deputy executive director of the center in Moscow, thinks the program has reached about half the scientists of top proliferation concern.
"We know for a fact that a number who had been receiving e-mails from Iran or Iraq or Pakistan are now very sensitive and cut off all communication with these organizations ... because they want to be eligible to participate in programs like the ISTC," Beatty said.
However, a Pentagon official said Iran's agents continue to try recruiting scientists from second-tier facilities. "That effort has not stopped," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The ISTC has 35 research projects under way at Obolensk, where it began cooperation programs in 1997, and it has devoted more than $4 million in salary supplements and other support to the institute.
ISTC grants add $20 to $35 a day to scientists' salaries, which this past year averaged only 2,500 rubles ($1=RUR30.55) a month at Obolensk. Work with the ISTC and other foreign partners has helped bring back several former Obolensk researchers who left in search of better pay, Volkov said.
Overall, the ISTC spends about one-quarter to one-third of its $75 million yearly grant budget on work in the biotechnology field in the former Soviet Union, most of it focused on public health problems such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and AIDS.
Smithson, the arms control expert, said the money should be doubled or tripled at a minimum.
"There isn't sufficient funding in the program yet to keep even the critical proliferation risk bioweaponeers gainfully and peacefully engaged and to help them adjust their skills and add skills that would enable them to become self-sufficient in the commercial marketplace," she said.
Obolensk, which employed more than 3,000 people in its prime, now has just over 1,000, half of them in research and the other half in production. Entire multistory buildings on the institute's 252-hectare grounds stand empty, while others have been revamped for commercial activities: a plant for making agar, an organic medium for laboratory cultures, and another to manufacture human insulin.
Both projects are a big step up from Obolensk's previous attempts to generate revenue, including a now-defunct ketchup-making plant.
Volkov and other scientists see the emphasis on cooperation as some vindication for the decades of work they put in as Biopreparat researchers. While few say they aspired to do bioweapons work, and some toiled for years in ignorance of the ultimate goal of their research, they are proud of the scientific contributions they made.
"The people sitting here are prepared to use their brains for these goals," Volkov said. "If they're forced to make kefir, they'll make kefir, but then they can't be used for countering terrorism."
Some of the scientists have remained in basic research, including Nikolai Staritzyn, one of the world's top anthrax experts.
Staritzyn and a fellow Obolensk scientist, Andrei Pomerantsev, provoked suspicions of continued Russian military bioweapons programs when they published a 1997 article summing up the results of their work on introducing genetic changes into anthrax, making it resistant to existing antibiotics.
Staritzyn said the research was meant to address the mutability of anthrax, which occurs in nature - with 30,000 natural breeding grounds in Russia, where infected livestock are buried.
"In general, in science, we try to increase our knowledge," Staritzyn said when asked about the fierce criticism the article provoked. "It's up to politicians to decide how that knowledge will be used, and our cooperation with the United States and others is for the good of humanity."