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The Threat of Biological Weapons

Science without conscience is the death of the soul.”
—Peter Abelard (1079-1144)


Men and women of good will talk of a common humanity, a common empathy with people everywhere who have hopes and sorrows similar to their own. Ken Alibek’s book is about a common inhumanity, a gigantic effort that employed tens of thousands of people to find ways of inflicting the most excruciatingly painful diseases and deaths on millions of men, women, and children in the hated capitalist world on the pretense or in the belief that they threatened the beloved motherland, the Soviet Union.

Biohazard is a candid autobiography of an ambitious Kazakh physician who helped to create and direct the largest and most advanced biological warfare program in the world. In the “Oath of a Soviet Physician” he had sworn “to do no harm.” He knew, he writes, “that the results of my studies could be used to kill people, but I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile this knowledge with the pleasure I derived from research.”

The prologue sets the scene:

On a bleak island in the Aral Sea, one hundred monkeys are tethered to posts set in parallel rows stretching out toward the horizon. A muffled thud breaks the stillness. Far in the distance, a small metal sphere lifts into the sky then hurtles downward, rotating, until it shatters in a second explosion.

Some seventy-five feet above the ground, a cloud the color of dark mustard begins to unfurl, gently dissolving as it glides down toward the monkeys. They pull at their chains and begin to cry. Some bury their heads between their legs. A few cover their mouths or noses, but it is too late: they have already begun to die.

At the other end of the island, a handful of men in biological protective suits observe the scene through binoculars, taking notes. In a few hours, they will retrieve the still-breathing monkeys and return them to cages where the animals will be under continuous examination for the next several days until, one by one, they die of anthrax or tularemia, Q fever, brucellosis, glanders, or plague.

These are the tests I supervised throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. They formed the foundation of the Soviet Union’s spectacular breakthroughs in biological warfare.

During World War II and the early stages of the cold war that followed, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union developed and field-tested biological weapons; but the United Kingdom gave them up in 1950 and in November 1969 President Nixon unilaterally renounced them, and in February 1970 he also renounced the development of toxins for military purposes. The United States stated that it had destroyed its stockpiles, converted the biological weapons laboratories to purely defensive purposes, and converted the factories providing the weapons to peaceful uses. There is no evidence that it did not. Harold Wilson’s British Labour government had by then proposed an international treaty banning the development, production, and possession of biological weapons. In 1972 this proposal led to the Biological Weapons Convention, which was signed and ratified by the United States and the Soviet Union. The convention entered into force in 1975, remains in force, and now has 143 “State Parties” adhering to it, including the United States, the Russian Federation, and Iraq. Unfortunately it has no efficient mechanism for verifying compliance.

The President’s bold initiative had been stimulated in part by a forceful memorandum which the Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson sent to his friend and former colleague Henry Kissinger in September 1969. This contained cogent arguments that the security of the United States would be enhanced by a policy of renunciation; an American biological weapons program would pioneer a technology that would leak out, so that other states could duplicate it for sinister purposes of their own.

The Soviet authorities seized upon the Convention as an excellent opportunity to acquire a monopoly on biological weapons that could be added to the Soviet Union’s already extensive stocks of conventional and nuclear weapons. They told their scientists that the Convention was no more than a screen behind which the United States would continue to develop its own biological weapons. Alibek writes:

We were the victims of our own gullibility. I have come to believe that the most senior Soviet officials must have known all along that the Americans had no serious biological warfare program after 1969—after all, our intelligence agencies were among the best at their craft, and they had not come up with any real evidence. But the fiction had been necessary to instill in us a sense of urgency. The Soviet biological warfare program, born initially out of fear and insecurity, had long since become a hostage to Kremlin politics. This would explain why KGB Chairman Kryuchkov had been so willing to trade it away in 1990 and why bureaucrats like Kalinin and Bykov refused to give it up.

In December 1991, Alibek was a member of a Russian delegation sent to inspect suspected US biological warfare installations. Before he left Russia, his superior, Major General Kalinin, told him: “Whatever you see there, come back with evidence that the Americans are making [biological] weapons.” He found none.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the number of people employed there on research, development, and manufacture of biological weapons had grown to 60,000. Gorbachev’s five-year plan, issued in 1985, included a $400 million virus production plant in Mordovia that contained a 170-gallon reactor for smallpox virus. In 1990 Soviet expenditure on biological weapons was close to $1 billion. At the same time, the Soviet authorities were unable to control their country’s rapidly deteriorating economy. They were rescued from bankruptcy by foreign loans that raised external debt from $43 billion at the end of 1988 to $67 billion at the end of 1991.1 Still, biological weapons spending continued.

The worldwide eradication of smallpox ranks as the greatest achievement of the World Health Organization, a heartening example of international cooperation to rid mankind of a terrible scourge. After this success, vaccination of babies against smallpox was discontinued throughout the world. The Soviets recognized that this made the new generation susceptible to smallpox and initiated a program for the manufacture of the virus. A Soviet medical team sent to India to help eradicate the virus was accompanied by a KGB man who returned home with a highly virulent and stable strain of it. Alibek writes that by adapting methods for growing human or animal cells in cultures on a large scale that had been developed in the West, a new production line perfected by 1990 was capable of manufacturing eighty to one hundred tons of virus per year in a vast atomic bomb-proof underground factory.

Some experts I have consulted regard that figure as improbably high because smaller amounts of virus would have been sufficient. An aerosol droplet containing as few as five smallpox virus particles suffices to infect a monkey; if this applied also to humans, then even one ton, if dispersed around the world, would be more than enough to kill every nonvaccinated man, woman, and child on earth. Alibek points out that the 12 million doses of smallpox vaccine now stored in the US would not stop an epidemic. He and his colleagues must have been aware that most adults in the West had been vaccinated so that their new weapon was aimed mainly at children.

In 1967 an animal keeper at the Behring pharmaceutical works in Marburg, Germany, contracted a virus from green monkeys sent there from Africa. It was named Marburg virus and is one of the most dangerous viruses known. The Ebola virus, described by Richard Preston in his best-selling book The Hot Zone, is closely related to it. In April 1988 Nikolai Ustinov, a scientist in the Vector Institute in the small Siberian town of Koltsovo, accidentally injected some Marburg virus into his thumb. Antiserum sent from Moscow proved useless. Alibek describes in heartrending detail Ustinov’s terrible suffering during the two weeks before he died. Since normal burial of his body was too risky, it was covered with disinfectant, wrapped in plastic sheets, and placed in a sealed metal container, which was then fitted into a wooden coffin.

Alibek blames Ustinov’s accident on long hours of work and enormous pressure to achieve quick results. What for? Alibek does not tell us. Before the burial, samples of the virus taken from Ustinov’s organs were found to be more virulent and stable than those taken from the fermentors, and orders went out to replace that strain with Ustinov’s. When bomblets filled with the virus were exploded over monkeys every one of them was dead three weeks later. By early 1990 the virus and the related Ebola virus were ready for approval by the Ministry of Defense.

On January 10 of this year Judith Miller reported in The New York Times that American subsidies had helped to convert the Koltsovo laboratories to peaceful purposes. They are now manufacturing diagnostic kits, enriched milk for children, interferon (used for treating certain leukemias and lymphomas), antibodies, and cosmetics, and they are also trying to develop a drug against the Marburg and Ebola viruses. A photograph in The New York Times shows Ustinov’s widow sadly leaning over a gravestone that bears his photograph at a ceremony marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the laboratory’s founding. She must wish the change of policy had come sooner.

Excessive prescription of antibiotics by doctors and their use by animal breeders has spread resistance to them among many disease-producing bacteria. Some bacteria have developed resistance against all major antibiotics. The genes responsible for the resistance are concentrated in circular strands of DNA called plasmids which are separate from the main bacterial chromosome and relatively easy to isolate. Alibek’s colleagues managed to introduce such plasmids into Yersinia pestis, the bacteria responsible for bubonic plague; these could be suspended in aerosols and released over cities, and would resist all known forms of treatment. Alibek notes that death from plague is invariably painful. Another triumph of his organization was the creation of a strain of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, a relative of the plague bacterium, into which they introduced the gene for a paralyzing toxin, so that infection would cause both fever and paralysis.

Valery Butuzov, a pharmacologist who became Alibek’s close friend, specialized in developing toxins for assassinating individuals rather than for mass murder. One day in 1990 he came to ask Alibek’s advice about a brilliant new invention, an ingeniously designed pocket assassinator. It consisted of a miniature battery, an amplifier, and a vibrating membrane, all in a box the size of a packet of cigarettes. A speck of dried powder on the membrane would form an aerosol when the device was activated. Butuzov told Alibek that he was thinking of something like Ebola virus. Alibek objected that this would also kill everyone around the chosen victim, but Butuzov thought that this wouldn’t matter. One possible victim was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the newly elected president of Georgia, who was seen as hostile to Russia.

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    Figures kindly supplied by Mr. John Odling-Smee at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C.

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