Biopreparat: Biowar on Steroids, Soviet-Style
by Mark Sanborne
Earlier installments in this series focused primarily on the US role in secretly researching, developing, and disseminating biological warfare agents through both tests and accidental releases, as well as deliberate attacks on plant, animal and human populations. However, the US is not the only bogeyman in the bionoia closet. In a little-noticed sideshow to the Cold War’s conventional and nuclear arms races, it turns out the Soviet Union actually outstripped Washington’s efforts on the biowar front, building a vast military-industrial complex that churned out deadly “weaponized” pathogens on a staggering scale.
This is not exactly a state secret. In fact, for those who follow such matters, the extent of the Soviet program (which continues in reduced and mysterious form in post-communist Russia) has been widely known and commented on since the 1990s. Discussed less—if at all—is the related question of what the US itself was doing in this field during the heyday of the Soviet effort in the 1970s and 1980s, after both countries signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, outlawing such weapons. But for now we will focus on what the Russians were up to, since it is a fascinating and frightening story that continues to have repercussions today.
The USSR began its biological warfare research in 1928, and the pace of the program picked up leading into World War II in the face of active Nazi and Japanese biowar threats. It has been reported by Ken Alibek (about whom more shortly) that the Red Army employed air-dispersed tularemia or rabbit fever against the German troops besieging Stalingrad in 1942-43, which infected many of the enemy but also spread to Soviet troops and civilians. However, a 2001 article in the journal Military Medicine argued that the epidemic was more likely a result of natural causes exacerbated by the complete breakdown in public health infrastructure. (“Natural causes” certainly seems more likely in this instance than it does in the case of the tularemia outbreak that occurred at a 2005 anti-war rally on the Washington Mall, as discussed in Part 1.)
In the post-war period through the early 1970s, the Soviet military mirrored the American biowar program by successfully weaponizing and mass-producing such “classic” bioagents as smallpox, bubonic plague, anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. Such weapons could be delivered on the battlefield via artillery, bombs, tactical missiles, and manned or drone spray planes. But the Russians also developed an even more scary “strategic” option: They reportedly designed a version of their new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles equipped with MIRVs (Multiple Independently-targeted Re-entry Vehicles) that can deliver multiple nuclear warheads from a single missile to different targets—to carry smallpox, plague, and anthrax to cities on the other side of the world. (Though the US pioneered MIRV technology, it’s unclear if it ever developed its own version of biowar ICBMs.)
In 1973, ostensibly as part its compliance with the recently signed Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), Moscow reorganized its clandestine efforts and formed an entity called Biopreparat under the government’s Main Microbiological Industry Agency. Biopreparat’s mission was to prepare against biological threats, both natural and man-made, by developing vaccines and other drugs. While officially a civilian agency, it worked closely with the military, and “Biopreparat” ultimately became a useful and catchy shorthand for the entire Soviet biowar complex.
At its peak, by some accounts, Biopreparat employed some 30,000 scientists and staff, while another 10,000 worked directly for the Soviet Defense Ministry. Other estimates run to a total of as many as 100,000 people working at an archipelago of up to 50 labs, pharmaceutical factories, research institutions, and test facilities spread across the entire Soviet Union. About half of the people were said to work on the “defensive” side—developing vaccines and other treatments against disease—while the other half worked on the offense, using the emerging science of genetic engineering to develop new versions of old germs and viruses.
Under the terms of the BWC, signatories were permitted to maintain small stocks of biological agents only “for prophylactic, protective, and other peaceful purposes.” The Soviets drove a veritable tank through that “defensive research” loophole. While the US has played the same deceptive game, the scope of its biowar efforts were considerably more modest, at least in terms of their physical scale and the funds devoted to them. As in other arenas of military and scientific competition with the West, the Soviets made up for their technological shortcomings with unlimited manpower, and the brute force of mass industrial production: biowar on steroids.
Virtually all that we now know about Biopreparat has come from defectors, two of whom we know about. The first was Vladimir Pasechnik, a top Biopreparat microbiologist who defected to Britain in 1989. He put a scare into British intelligence, and subsequently the CIA, by informing them that Moscow’s biowar program was 10 times bigger than Western experts had thought and had developed “strategic” contagious biological weapons. More specifically, he asserted that as director of the Institute of Ultrapure Biopreparations in Leningrad he presided over research that led to the development of a variety of plague resistant to antibiotics
As a result of Pasechnik’s revelations, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President George HW Bush pressured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to open up his country’s biowar facilities to inspection. A joint US-UK team was allowed to tour four key Biopreparat facilities in 1991, but were greeted with cleaned-up labs and sterilized production facilities as well as denials from Soviet officials.
“This clearly was the most successful biological weapons program on earth. These people just sat there and lied to us, and lied, and lied,” a British inspector told writer Richard Preston, who relayed the account in a March 2, 1998, New Yorker story, “The Bioweaponeers.” Another inspector said: “If Biopreparat was once an egg, then the weapons program was the yolk of the egg. They’ve hard-boiled the egg, and taken out the yolk and hidden it.”
The second key insider was Ken Alibek (born Kanatjan Alibekov), the deeply disillusioned first deputy director of Biopreparat, who defected to the US in 1992. He spent several years being debriefed by and advising military and intelligence officials, and ultimately wrote a book, Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World—Told From Inside by the Man Who Ran It (Random House, 1999), which introduced the American public to the story of Biopreparat. In addition to becoming a resident media expert on bioterrorism, he is currently president of AFG Biosolutions, where one of his projects is aimed at developing affordable anti-cancer therapies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Alibek is generally regarded as a reliable source by Western experts, at least when he is talking about things he has direct knowledge of. And he appears to know a lot, as he was more of a hands-on scientist than a government functionary. For one thing, he personally helped develop the Soviet’s most potent form of weapons-grade anthrax – dubbed Alibekov anthrax. He also has some scary stories to tell. The hands-down scariest one involves the fate of a colleague of his, Dr. Nicolai Ustinov, who worked at a major Biopreparat facility called Vector, located outside Novosibirsk in western Siberia.
As related in Preston’s article, Ustinov had been studying the deadly Marburg virus, a close cousin of the better-known Ebola virus, when he pricked his finger through his biocontainment suit with an infected needle. (Like Ebola, Marburg originates in Africa. It is known from Kitgum Cave near Mt. Elgon in Kenya, though Alibek suspects Soviet agents obtained their sample from the outbreak that gave the virus its name, which occurred in 1967 among workers handling infected monkeys at a vaccine factory in Marburg, Germany.) Ustinov was isolated and fell ill within days, and began keeping a scientific diary of his hemorrhagic disintegration as blood began seeping from his orifices. Within two weeks he was dead.
“The final pages of Dr. Nikolai Ustinov’s scientific journal are smeared with unclotted blood,” Preston writes. “His skin developed starlike hemorrhages in the underlayers. Incredibly—the Vector scientists had never seen this before—he sweated blood directly from the pores of his skin, and left bloody fingerprints on the pages of his diary. He wept again before he died.”
The story ends even more macabrely, if that’s possible. Supposedly, researchers froze Ustinov’s liver and spleen and a quantity of his blood, and used it to keep the viral strain alive, dubbing it Marburg Variant U, for Ustinov. (It’s not clear if he would have appreciated the honor.) They then learned to mass-produce it as a coated, inhaleable airborne dust that could drift for miles. According to Alibek’s account, a test “found that just one to five microscopic particles of Variant U lodged in the lungs of a monkey were almost guaranteed to make the animal crash, bleed, and die. With normal weapons-grade anthrax, in comparison, it takes about eight thousand spores lodged in the lungs to pretty much guarantee infection and death.”
Marburg and Ebola are bad enough, but at least they are known and presumably naturally occurring viruses. (Some people, of course, have doubts even about that.) Even more controversial is Alibek’s claim that Soviet researchers in the early 1990s had studied using recombinant DNA to create so-called chimera viruses, named for the mythical Greek creature made up parts of various animals. Specifically, he said Biopreparat had separately succeeded in splicing genetic material from Venezuelan equine virus and Ebola into smallpox.
While a number of Western experts scoffed at such claims when they were made, in the years since chimera viruses have become a major new tool in medical research, particularly for vaccines. (Just plug “chimera virus” into Google and see all the medical paper hits you get.) Biopreparat researchers at Obolensk, near Moscow, have published scientific papers on two examples of such gene-splicing. One involved altering the Francisella tularensis bacteria that causes tularemia so that it produces beta-endorphins that boosted thresholds of pain sensitivity in infected mice, changes that in humans could make it difficult for the disease to be diagnosed. Another involved the creation of a bioengineered anthrax that both made it harder to detect and resistant to the existing anthrax vaccine.
Further evidence comes from another Russian emigre from Biopreparat, but one less well-known than Pasechnik and Alibek. Serguei Popov came to the West around the same time as Alibek but attracted little attention until his research was cited in Alibek’s book. An article by Mark Williams in the March-April 2006 edition Technology Review, an MIT publication, titled “The Knowledge,” included an interview with Popov. He talked about the high-manpower and low-tech approach needed to perform gene sequencing in the primitive days of the early 1980s:
“We had no DNA synthesizers then. I had 50 people doing DNA synthesis manually, step by step. One step was about three hours, where today, with the synthesizer, it could be done in a few minutes – it could be less than a minute. Nevertheless, already the idea was that we could produce one virus a month …. If you wanted a hundred people, it was hundred. If a thousand, a thousand.”
As Williams notes, “It is a startling picture: an industrial program that consumed tons of chemicals and marshaled large numbers of biologists to construct, over months, a few hundred bases of a gene coded for a single protein.” He also observes that such work could be done easily today with second-hand gene-sequencing equipment available over eBay for around $5,000. But perhaps the most frightening thing in the article is this:
Into a relatively innocuous bacterium responsible for a low-mortality pneumonia, Legionella pneumophila, Popov and his researchers spliced mammalian DNA that expressed fragments of myelin protein, the electrically insulating fatty layer that sheathes our neurons. In test animals, the pneumonia infection came and went, but the myelin fragments borne by the recombinant Legionella goaded the animals’ immune systems to read their own natural myelin as pathogenic and attack it. Brain damage, paralysis, and nearly 100 percent mortality resulted: Popov had created a biological weapon that in effect triggered rapid multiple sclerosis. (Popov’s claims can be corroborated: in recent years, scientists researching treatment for MS have employed similar methods on test animals with similar results.)
Whew. And if that wasn’t enough, Williams cites a transcript of a 2003 speech by George Poste, former chief scientist at SmithKline Beecham and chair of a US Defense Department bioterrorism task force. Poste recalled attending a recent biotech conference on the subject of memory-boosting agents: “A series of aged rats were paraded with augmented memory functions… And some very elegant structural chemistry was placed onto the board… Then with the most casual wave of the hand the presenter said, ‘Of course, modification of the methyl group at C7 completely eliminates memory. Next slide, please.'”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Meanwhile, time has marched on for Biopreparat, and now it is trying to remake itself as a profitable vaccine a pharmaceutical concern. In the late 1990s in supposedly became a “joint-stock company,” though publicly the Russian government says it has reduced its controlling stake in Biopreparat to 51 percent, and it has not been determined who controls the other 49 percent.
At the same time, as uncertainty over the safety of Russia’s remaining bioweapons complex continues, the US DoD has budgeted $61 million in fiscal 2006 under its Cooperative Threat Reduction program to help secure facilities in six countries: Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. (The US does not yet have such programs in five other former Soviet states that have biowar facilities: Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.)
One in site in particular need of security and clean-up is Vozrozhdeniye (“Rebirth”) Island in the Aral Sea, which is currently split between Kazakh and Uzbek territory. Up until 1992, when Russia’s then-President Boris Yeltsin ordered the closure of all offensive biowar programs, Vozrozhdeniye had been the main testing site for bioagents developed by Biopreparat, and so the island was impregnated with residue from virtually every pathogen in the Russian arsenal, and is considered the world’s largest anthrax burial ground.
There is a certain urgency behind US funding and expertise being used to “remediate” the island’s poisoned soil, because soon it will no longer be an island. The Aral Sea continues to shrink due to the diversion of water for agricultural projects, and there already is a virtual land bridge to the mainland, making it harder to secure the facility at the same time that toxic sludge may be leaching downward and outward into the spreading sands. It would appear that this is a US foreign aid project that we can all get behind.
In the end, perhaps the most surprising thing about Biopreparat is the apparent total ignorance Western governments had of the program’s vast extent before the revelations of Pasechnik and Alibek. This would seem to represent one of the most critical yet under-reported intelligence failures in recent US history. In fact, it’s almost hard to believe that with all of the Pentagon’s spy satellites focused on Soviet military-industrial installations—along with other evidence, like the anthrax leak at a Biopreparat facility near Sverdlovsk in 1979 that killed hundreds—no one on the US side had a clue what was going on.
Whatever the explanation, US biowarriors weren’t exactly sitting on their hands during the period when Biopreparat was going like gangbusters. The Americans were busy, but they went about their business with a smaller footprint than their Soviet counterparts. Nevertheless, Moscow assumed that Washington did in fact have its own offensive biowar establishment hidden from sight, which was how the leaders of Biopreparat justified breaking the Biological Weapons Convention to the extent that they did.
So what were “we” up to in those carefree days of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s? Stay tuned…
“Tularemia, Biological Warfare, and the Battle for Stalingrad (1942-43),”
Military Medicine, Vol. 166, No. 10, October 2001
“Support to Threat Reduction of the Russian Biological Weapons Legacy:
Conversion, Biodefence and the Role of Biopreparat,”
by Roger Roffey, Wilhelm Unge, Jenny Clevström and Kristina S Westerdahl,
Swedish Ministry of Defense, April 2003
“The Bioweaponeers,” by Richard Preston
The New Yorker, March 9, 1998
“The Knowledge: Biotechnology’s advance could give malefactors the ability to manipulate life processes
—and even affect human behavior,”
by Mark Williams, MIT Technology Review, March/April 2006
“Germs on the Loose,” by Eileen Choffnes
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2001, pp. 57-61
“Bionoia,” Pt. 4 WW4 REPORT #121, July 2006
“Central Asia to Revive Soviet Water Diversion Scheme,”
WW4 REPORT#. 58, Nov. 4, 2002
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution