13 Dec 2002
Los Angeles Times, July
A Deadly Recipe
ATLANTA -- Those
American scientists who know Gen. Pyotr Burgasov don't expect much candor from
him. Alexis Shelokov, a member of a U.S. scientific team that, in 1992,
investigated a mysterious 1979 outbreak of anthrax in the then-Soviet Union city
of Sverdlovsk, says the tall,
silver-haired former deputy minister of health was "easy, pleasant, smiling,
good to eat and drink with, a man who loved people and loved life. He was very
comfortable with lying." Burgasov denied -- and still denies -- that the 68
people who died of inhalational anthrax in that outbreak were victims of a
bioweapons accident. He insists they ate infected meat. But in a November 2001
interview in the Moscow News, the affable Burgasov offered candid advice
to terrorists. Anthrax isn't worth much, he noted--it doesn't spread. "But
smallpox -- that's a real biological weapon," he said.
Burgasov then dropped a bomb of his own, one that is still reverberating in the
American corridors of power. "On Vozrazhdenie Island in the
Aral Sea, the
strongest recipes of smallpox were tested," he said. "Four hundred grams of
smallpox formulation was exploded on the island." At that same time in 1971, he
continued, a research vessel sailing on the Aral Sea passed within 15 kilometers
of the testing site. A young technician was on board taking samples of plankton.
The airborne smallpox "got her," in Burgasov's words, and she fell ill after
returning home to the town of Aralsk, where she passed the infection on to her
brother and other people. "I called [Yuri] Andropov, who at that time was chief
of KGB, and informed him of the exclusive recipe of smallpox obtained on
Vozrazhdenie Island," Burgasov said.
Burgasov's bomb took a long time to detonate. Dr. Ken Alibek, former deputy
director of Biopreparat, the Soviet biological-weapons apparatus, reported on
Burgasov's interview before the U.S. House Committee on International Relations
in December, but no one paid attention. In April, however, the Center for
Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies
received the original Soviet-era reports on the outbreak from Dr. Bakyt B.
Atshabar, director of the Kazakh Scientific Center of Almaty, Kazakhstan. The
report was sent to biodefense expert Alan P. Zelicoff of Sandia National
Laboratories in New Mexico, who also interviewed two of the original patients in
Kazakhstan by telephone and subjected the data to rigorous statistical analysis.
Zelicoff, a medical doctor, presented his findings June 15 at a National Academy
of Sciences Institute of Medicine forum on smallpox vaccination, and Burgasov's
The "exclusive recipe" of smallpox tested on Vozrazhdenie Island produced no
ordinary disease. The young technician who first fell ill had been vaccinated.
So had her brother, whom she infected when she returned to Aralsk. Both
suffered, as Zelicoff determined, severe illness. And both were contagious.
Although they survived, a young woman who visited them did not. She died of
hemorrhagic smallpox, the most terrible form of the disease, which causes
uncontrollable bleeding and rapid death. Two infants also died of hemorrhagic
smallpox. None of the three had been vaccinated. The vaccinated patients did not
die, but they came down with moderately severe disease.
Before naturally occurring smallpox disappeared in 1978, hemorrhagic smallpox
was exceedingly rare -- not more than 2.5% of all smallpox cases took this form,
which was most common in countries such as India and Bangladesh, where crowded
conditions allowed severe disease to spread more easily. Yet in Kazakhstan, all
three nonvaccinated cases were hemorrhagic. The numbers are small but the
percentage is unnerving.
Zelicoff's presentation provoked an instant uproar.
Dr. Donald A. Henderson, who directed the smallpox-eradication campaign and who
has long advocated destruction of the remaining legitimate stores of the
smallpox virus, immediately protested that, since smallpox still occurred in
nearby Afghanistan, the technician may have caught the disease naturally at one
of the several Central Asian ports the ship visited. But the woman, though she
made many stops in the region, never visited Afghanistan, and no one who did
fell ill. Furthermore, Burgasov himself states that this was a bioweapons
incident. And former Soviet bioweapons scientist Sergei Popov, who now works for
Advanced Biosystems Inc., a biodefense firm in Manassas, Va., says he had heard
rumors of the Aralsk bioweapons outbreak for years. Evidence suggests that we
should take Burgasov at his word.
Zelicoff's analysis goes further: He suggests that the particular so-called
Aralsk strain must have been epidemiologically selected to be as hot as
possible, "the strongest recipe of smallpox," in Burgasov's inimitable phrasing.
A commentary on Zelicoff's analysis, written by smallpox expert Dr. Peter B.
Jahrling of the U.S. Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, puts it
this way: "We know that the Soviet bioweapons development program attempted to
select natural strains of increased virulence and that one of the selection
criteria was hemorrhagic diathesis in mice and embryonated eggs." In other
words, Soviet bioweaponeers deliberately tested strains of smallpox to select
those most likely to "go hemorrhagic."
What does all this mean? Thirty years ago, Soviet scientists had weaponized a
smallpox strain probably far more lethal than most forms of natural smallpox. We
often hear that smallpox has a death rate of 30%, nothing like the 99% fatality
rate of, say, untreated pneumonic plague. But in fact this is only an average.
Smallpox strains from Africa killed about 10% of those infected, while the much
hotter strains of India and Bangladesh killed many more, close to 50%.
Alibek, the former Soviet biological weapons official, has stated that the
Soviets deliberately selected an especially lethal strain from India, the
so-called India 1, as the basis for their smallpox bioweapon. Was the "exclusive
recipe" from Aralsk the same as India 1? Possibly -- but if not, then India 1
might be worse. And we do not know which strains may be in the hands of rogue
A number of American scientists, including Zelicoff, have asked the Russian
scientists at the Vector Laboratories of Novosibirsk, keepers of the
Russian-held World Health Organization smallpox repository, to locate and turn
over the Aralsk strain for joint collaborative study. Vector scientists deny
knowledge of the strain or even the incident. This strikes some observers as
implausible, though Vector did not exist in 1971, and its director and chief
smallpox expert, Lev Sandakhchiev, was working on acetabularia, a form of giant
algae, at the time. If Vector has the strain, however, it's unlikely the lab
would be able to hand it over on its own. "Such a decision would have to be made
at the highest levels of the Russian government," Alibek says. Meanwhile, a
formal request for India 1 and other smallpox strains from the Vector repository
has yet to be made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Without that formal request, says a knowledgeable official, the Russian
scientists cannot issue an export license.
It isn't likely, therefore, that we'll soon understand the precise properties of
the Aralsk strain, or India 1 for that matter. But we should be better prepared
to face the smallpox threat than we are. The government should permit the
American people to choose to be vaccinated now. A freshly vaccinated population
-- excluding the very young, those with major skin disorders and people with
seriously compromised immune systems -- could well deter a smallpox strike in
the first place. Why waste effort trying to infect a vaccinated population?
Even if an attack occurred, widespread vaccination would minimize death and
social disruption. Furthermore, the ongoing research by Jahrling and his team
into less dangerous vaccines and better antiviral drugs to treat smallpox after
infection should become a top priority of the CDC and the federal government.
Now we know, thanks to Zelicoff's efforts and Burgasov's candor, what weaponized
smallpox strains can do. But if the event at Aralsk was the devil's fingertip,
what would the whole hand be like?
We should take steps to ensure we never find out.