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Soviet-era germ factories pose new threat

The lack of security at Soviet ‘antiplague’ labs that were once mined for pathogens for a top secret bioweapons program poses a serious threat in the age of bioterrorism, analysts say.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

For 50 years under Soviet rule, nearly everything about the Odessa Antiplague Station was a state secret, down to the names of the deadly microbes its white-coated workers collected and stored in a pair of ordinary freezers.

Cloistered in a squat, gray building at the tip of a rusting shipping dock, the station's biologists churned out reports on grave illnesses that were mentioned only in code. Anthrax was Disease No. 123, and plague, which killed thousands here in the 19th century, was No. 127. Each year, researchers added new specimens to their frozen collection and shared test results with sister institutes along a network controlled by Moscow.

Today, the Soviets are gone but the lab is still here, in this Black Sea port notorious for its criminal gangs and black markets. It is just one of more than 80 similar "antiplague" labs scattered across the former Soviet Union, from the turbulent Caucasus to Central Asian republics that share borders with Iran and Afghanistan. Each is a repository of knowledge, equipment and lethal pathogens that weapons experts have said could be useful to bioterrorists.

Science co-opted for warfare
After decades of operating in the shadows, the labs are beginning to shed light on another secret: How the Soviet military co-opted obscure civilian institutes into a powerful biological warfare program that built weapons for spreading plague and anthrax spores. As they ramped up preparations for germ warfare in the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet generals mined the labs for raw materials, including highly lethal strains of viruses and bacteria that were intended for use in bombs and missiles.

The facilities' hidden role is described in a draft report of a major investigation by scholars from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The main conclusions of the report, which was provided to The Washington Post, were echoed in interviews with current and former U.S. officials familiar with the labs. Most scientists who worked in antiplague stations in Soviet times knew nothing of their contributions to the weapons program, the report says.

The labs today are seeking to fill a critical role in preventing epidemics in regions where medical services and sanitation have deteriorated since Soviet times. But an equally pressing challenge is security: How to prevent the germ collections and biological know-how from being sold or stolen.

Easy access worries bioterror experts
"They often have culture collections of pathogens that lack biosecurity, and they employ people who are well-versed in investigating and handling deadly pathogens," said Raymond A. Zilinskas, a bioweapons expert and coauthor of the draft report on the antiplague system. "Some are located at sites accessible to terrorist groups and criminal groups. The potential is that terrorists and criminals would have little problem acquiring the resources that reside in these facilities."

Managers of the old antiplague stations are aware of their vulnerabilities but lack the most basic resources for dealing with them, according to the Monterey authors and U.S. officials. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, budgets at the institutes have fallen so steeply that even the simplest security upgrades are out of reach. One facility in a Central Asian capital could not even afford a telephone and had no way of contacting police in the event of a break-in. At least two antiplague centers outside Russia have acknowledged burglaries or break-ins within the past three years, though there are no confirmed reports of stolen pathogens or missing lab equipment, Monterey officials said.

The lack of modern biosafety equipment is also raising concern among U.S. officials about the potential for an accidental release of deadly bacteria and viruses. In Odessa, where 44 scientists and about 140 support staff carry out research in the I.I. Mechnikov Antiplague Scientific and Research Institute, scientists wearing cotton smocks and surgical masks work with lethal microbes that in the West would be locked away in high-containment laboratories and handled only by scientists in spacesuits.

The lab's scientists said their training in handling dangerous materials allowed them to work safely with pathogens without Western-style safety equipment — which they viewed as unnecessary and which in any case they cannot afford.

"Many of the institutes are located in downtown areas, and some work with pathogens with windows wide open," said Sonia Ben Ouagrham, who coauthored the Monterey study with Zilinskas and Alexander Melikishvili.

Labs could be life-savers
The obscurity of the antiplague stations is hampering their ability to fix the problems, the researchers said. The institutes were not officially part of the Soviet bioweapons complex, so they have been deemed ineligible for the tens of millions of dollars in aid given each year by U.S. and Western governments to keep former weapons scientists from selling their expertise.

Western governments are just beginning to look for ways to help the institutes, and not only because of the bioterrorism threat. In a two-year study of Russia's biotech industry, a panel of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recently urged former Soviet republics to modernize the antiplague labs and integrate them with other global networks that seek to prevent outbreaks of diseases from becoming pandemics. "The Russian Anti-plague System, regardless of any involvement it might have had in the former offensive program, serves an important public health need," said David Franz, panel chairman and director of Kansas State University's National Agricultural Biosecurity Center.

Any weakening of the antiplague network has consequences for the control of infectious diseases throughout the world, and especially in Europe, said Monterey's Zilinskas.

"These institutes have served to prevent diseases such as plague, tularemia and Crimean-Congo fever from spilling over," he said, referring to a flulike fever sometimes referred to as "rabbit flu" and a hemorrhagic viral fever. "Some Europeans are unaware of this biological threat on their southeastern flank. Others are aware, but so far, are choosing not be engaged."

Growth of a secret Soviet system
The name "antiplague" reflects a grim reality of the Czarist and early Soviet periods, when the first antiplague stations were created: Plague, or black death, was a frequent visitor to Russia and neighboring countries well into the 20th Century.

Plague is caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis , and it is most commonly transmitted to people by animal or insect carriers, such as rats. It is the same illness that killed an estimated one-third of the population of Europe in the 14th century. Today, plague is easily treated with antibiotics, although a rare form of the disease — pneumonic plague, caused by breathing the bacteria into the lungs — is highly lethal and is considered a weapon of choice for germ warfare or bioterrorism.

In Odessa alone, a sea port of just over 1 million people, tourists can visit eight different cemeteries for plague victims, including Plague Mountain, a grassy mound that served as a mass grave for victims of an 1812 outbreak that killed more than 2,600 people.

The first antiplague stations were established to help contain such outbreaks. A dozen of them already were operating by the end of the reign of the last czar. The start of the Soviet era in 1917 brought many new institutes, new priorities and an expanded list of diseases, including tularemia, cholera and anthrax.

The Monterey Institute's report studies how the institutes evolved under Soviet leadership , and draws on scores of interviews and visits to more than 40 antiplague institutes and field stations. Some details emerged previously from the writings and testimony of Soviet weapons scientists.

By all accounts, the antiplague network grew dramatically under the Soviets, both in size and sophistication. By the end of the Soviet period it boasted 14,000 employees and 88 permanent facilities, including six major antiplague institutes, 26 regional stations and 53 smaller field stations.

Practicing primitive science
Odessa's facility was a regional station, first opened in 1937 to battle recurring outbreaks of plague linked to infected rats that were arriving by ship. The original building on a municipal dock was later exchanged for a walled compound of three-story buildings painted pale blue. Inside, scientists dissected infected rats and birds in separate virology and bacteriology labs, using equipment that would be considered outmoded in many U.S. high schools today. For years, until the lab purchased autoclaves for cremating contaminated materials, the bodies of the diseased animals were simply buried in the lab's courtyard.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Soviet military began to exert influence over research priorities in the facilities. At first, the Monterey report says, antiplague institutes were asked to help bolster the nation's defenses against a possible foreign biological attack. The assignment was code-named "Problem Five," and it required scientists to expand on their already-proven ability to respond to a sudden outbreak. Researchers refined techniques for detecting and identifying pathogens, established rapid-response teams and aided the investigation of new drugs.

A growing international consensus against biological warfare prompted the Soviets to shift to a new direction. In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon unilaterally halted U.S. production of biological weapons. Three years later, the Soviet Union joined the United States and other nations in signing the Biological Weapons Convention, outlawing biological weapons. Within the next two years, the Soviets secretly began to build a massive offensive weapons program. Much of it was hidden inside a sprawling civilian-run enterprise called Biopreparat, which put tens of thousands of scientists to work on bioweapons projects disguised as pharmaceutical research.

The ruse worked. Western governments did not become fully aware of true of purpose of Biopreparat until a leading Soviet scientist, Vladimir Pasechnik, defected to Britain in 1989.

A steady supply of virulent strains
When Soviet generals began their expanded buildup of bioweapons in the 1970s, they looked to the antiplague network for help, the Monterey authors said. The largest antiplague institutions were enlisted into a new program, code-named "Problem F," or simply "Ferment."

According to Zilinskas and others, the antiplague institutes were a goldmine for the military because they provided "ready-to-use information, biomaterial and expertise."

Precise details of the antiplague institutes' work remain unclear. The Russian government still refuses to officially acknowledge the existence of the Soviet Union's offensive weapons program. Russia also has outlawed any disclosures of classified information from the pre-1992, Soviet era. But scientists now living outside Russia have brought many key facts to light, the researchers said. It is now known, for example, that key antiplague institutes during this period came under the command of Soviet military officers, some of whom once worked at military biological facilities.

It also is clear, they said, that Soviet bioweapon engineers relied on the antiplague institutes for basic research and identification of pathogen strains that were exceptionally lethal.

"There was a secret law that enjoined all antiplague institutes to send the government any kind of virulent strain that might be used for defensive purposes," said Zilinskas. Soviet bioweapons that most likely originated in antiplague centers include bacterial strains that cause plague, anthrax and tularemia, the report concludes. In addition, it is believed that one of the antiplague facilities, in Volgograd, helped Biopreparat scientists develop weaponized versions of the bacteria that cause glanders and melioidosis, two livestock diseases that also attack humans. "This collaboration probably went beyond the mere supplying of strains," the authors write. "It included efforts to weaponize wild bacterial strains."

The bioweapons program was so secret that many researchers didn't know about it. Lev Mogilevsky, deputy director of the Odessa research facility and a 36-year veteran of the antiplague system, said he believed it was impossible that his institute could have contributed to the creation of offensive biological weapons. But he did rememberworking on joint projects with military medical units in the 1970s and '80s, during which the exchange of information was decidedly one-way.

"We would hold meetings to discuss Problem Five, and there would be many institutes participating, including military ones," Mogilevsky recalled. "Our contributions would be open, but the military's never were. They revealed nothing."

Underfunded, understaffed and unsecured
Today, the Odessa antiplague station and others like it throughout the former Soviet Union face a new generation of difficulties. Even the simple task of gathering field specimens can be a challenge, because it requires travel. That means using the institute's aging van, which is often in need of repairs, and purchasing gasoline, which the lab cannot afford.

To grow bacteria for testing, the scientists need a sterile nutrient broth, or growth medium, common to biological labs all over the world. But again, the Odessa lab has no money for such supplies. Workers improvise by collecting meat scraps, boiling them down in the lab and skimming off the fat.

The list goes on: Glassware. Lab chemicals. Fax paper. Microscope parts. Testing kits.

"Our budget has been very much decreased. The equipment that we have is old," said Mogilevsky. "Basically what we have is enough to sustain the lab at a very low level of activity."

Other shortages, unrelated to lab work, trouble the institute's deputy director. He worries about broken alarm sensors, ancient locks that need replacing and walls that should be built higher and stronger to keep out intruders. He wonders whether a single guard is enough, and if not, how he could possibly afford another.

When the Monterey Institute and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group, brought scores of antiplague scientists together two years ago for their first post-Soviet-era meeting, complaints about inadequate supplies and plummeting budgets were a common refrain. In fact, Odessa's plight was nowhere near the worst.

"All were in poor shape," said Zilinskas, who has helped launch a program that brings antiplague scientists to the United States for training. "Some of the facilities received literally no money from their governments, at all."

Many of the centers in the ex-Soviet republics continue to maintain high professional standards, the researchers said, thanks in part to a core of older scientists who were trained under the Soviet system in classic laboratory techniques. But today, training is harder to come by, even for the few young scientists who are willing to accept starting salaries of less than $25 a week.

Over time, continued cost-cutting inevitably will undermine the labs' ability to function at all. And that, the researchers said, has a cost of its own.

"If the system shuts down because of lack of equipment and funding, there's a risk of an epizootic outbreak among animals that becomes an outbreak among humans," said Monterey's Ouagrham. "And humans travel."