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Volume IX, Number 1 (September-October 1998)

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Behind the Mask: Biological Warfare

Although the Soviet Union was a party to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, it continued a high-intensity program to develop and produce biological weapons through at least the early 1990s. The size and scope of this program were enormous. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, over 60,000 people were involved in the research, development, and production of biological weapons. Hundreds of tons of anthrax weapon formulation (2) were stockpiled, along with dozens of tons of smallpox and plague. The total production capacity of all of the facilities involved was many hundreds of tons of various agents annually.

The Soviet Union's biological weapons program was established in the late 1920s. One of the key events which prompted the Soviets to explore biological weapons was the typhus epidemic that raged in Russia from 1918 to 1922. During this period, around 12 million persons contracted typhus; estimates of resultant deaths range from 2-10 million. The Soviets realized that if they could harness this destructive and disruptive force, they would create a very powerful weapon indeed.

Prior to World War II, the Soviets conducted research on a wide variety of agents. By the beginning of the war, the USSR was able to manufacture weapons using the agents not only for epidemic typhus, but also for tularemia (an incapacitating illness that can be fatal if not treated with antibiotics) and Q fever (which is not fatal but incapacitates its victims for an average of 8-16 days). It was also working on techniques for producing weapons using the agents for smallpox, plague, and anthrax.

World War II brought several advances for the Soviets, in the form of German industrial techniques and machinery for manufacturing large-scale biological reactors as well as other industrial equipment and valuable information from the Japanese biological weapons program.

After the war, the Soviet program continued to expand and develop. In many cases, it closely shadowed the US biological weapons program. While only a few agents had been weaponized before the war, after the war the number of different weaponized agents was increased to about ten. A number of weapons to affect crops and livestock was also developed. Research during this period also included developing and refining techniques and equipment for more efficient cultivation and concentration of the agents, and devising methods for producing more advanced weapons formulations for a number of agents.

During this post-war period, which lasted until the signing of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the Soviet Union formulated its doctrine regarding the production and use of biological weapons. In the Soviets' definition, strategic weapons were those to be used on the deepest targets, i.e., the US and other distant countries; operational weapons were those intended for use on medium-range targets, nearer than the strategic targets but well behind the battlefront; and tactical weapons were those to be used at the battlefront. Biological weapons were excluded from use as tactical weapons, and were divided into strategic and operational types. Strategic biological agents were mostly lethal, such as smallpox, anthrax, and plague; operational agents were mostly incapacitating, such as tularemia, glanders, and Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis (VEE). For both types of weapons, use was envisioned on a massive scale, to cause huge numbers of casualties and extensive disruption of vital civilian and military activity.

The Soviets also established so-called mobilization capacities: facilities whose peacetime work was not biological weapons production, but which could rapidly begin weapons production if war was imminent.

It is important to note that, in the Soviets' view, the best biological agents were those for which there was no prevention and no cure. In cases where vaccines or treatment existed--such as plague, which can be treated with antibiotics--antibiotic-resistant or immunosuppressive variants were to be developed. This is in sharp contrast to the philosophy of the US program (terminated in 1969 by President Nixon's Executive Order), which stringently protected the safety of its biological weapons researchers by insisting that a vaccine or treatment be available for any agent studied.

After the Soviet Union became a party to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, internal debate ensued about the fate of the existing biological weapons program. The end result was that the program was not dismantled, but further intensified. During the period 1972-1992, the focus of the program was expanded. In addition to continuing previous types of work (developing improved manufacturing and testing techniques and equipment; developing improved delivery means for existing weapons; and exploring other possible agents as weapons), new emphasis was placed on:

  • conducting molecular biology and genetic engineering research in order to develop antibiotic-resistant and immunosuppressive strains and to create genetically combined strains of two or more viruses;

  • studying peptides with psychogenic or neurogenic effects as possible weapons;

  • transforming non-pathogenic microorganisms and opportunistic pathogens (3) into pathogenic microorganisms;

  • testing all of the facilities considered part of the mobilization capacity to verify their readiness.

During this period, the Soviet program not only caught up with the US program (which was halted in 1969), but it became the most sophisticated biological weapons program in the world by far.

The Soviets understood that offensive biological work had to be conducted with especially strict secrecy since the USSR had signed the 1972 convention. In fact, the USSR's biological weapons program was even more secret than its nuclear weapons program. All research, development and manufacturing of biological weapons, as well as any related work, were classified as "top secret" and of "special importance." Not even the slightest indication that any activity was taking place in this area could be revealed. All work connected to biological weapons was conducted under the cover of civilian and defensive projects. Special cover stories were created for each facility, building and even piece of equipment involved in biological weapons work.

For any given facility, there were two cover stories, one of which was "open" and the other "secret." The "open" cover story was created for dissemination among the general population. The "secret" cover story was an allegedly true secret piece of information, although in fact it, too, was false. As a typical example of the cover stories used at production plants, consider the cover stories created for the Omutninsk production plant:

The "open" cover story was that this plant had been constructed and was operating as a plant for manufacturing biopesticides and fertilizers. The "secret" cover story was that the plant would be used for manufacturing vaccines, antibiotics and other medical and pharmaceutical preparations necessary for the army in wartime. The truth is that the Omutninsk facility was a reserve biological weapons production facility that could produce tularemia, plague, and glanders biological weapons in time of war.

Each plant had a group of specialists responsible for disinformation measures. For example, they developed special countermeasures to conceal their biological weapons activities from foreign engineering and technical intelligence services. All solid wastes--carcasses of experimental animals, solid nutrient media, inactivated samples of biological weapons, etc.--were destroyed. To mask liquid wastes that contained signs of biological weapons agents (e.g., heat-stable antigens), these substances were combined with liquid wastes from civil production. Special charcoal filters for capturing all traces of TNT (the explosive substance used in biological bomblets) were developed and installed to prevent the detection of these substances outside the facility.

A massive disinformation campaign was conducted after the accidental release of anthrax from a biological weapons facility in Sverdlovsk in 1979. Concealment measures included the destruction of medical records of the victims, as well as the construction of an elaborate cover story that attributed the anthrax epidemic to contaminated meat and that even involved the arrest of the peasant whose meat was supposedly the source of contamination. Although the West considered the incident suspicious, the cover story was largely believed until recently.

As the USSR weakened during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as more and more details were revealed regarding its biological weapons program, the West put increasing pressure on the Soviets. In 1991, a series of trilateral inspections was conducted by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. The weapons program still existed when these inspections took place; the Soviets covered up the evidence as best they could.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in early 1992, Russian President Boris Yel'tsin signed a decree banning all biological weapons-related activity. Considerable downsizing in this area did indeed occur, and included destruction of the existing biological weapons stockpiles. However, there still remains doubt that Russia has completely dismantled the old Soviet program.

Some of the doubts in this regard can be illustrated by the example of the smallpox virus. After declaring smallpox eradicated in 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) stipulated that only a few authorized laboratories could possess the smallpox virus. These authorized laboratories were eventually reduced to two: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta and the Ivanovsky Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow. However, in the late 1980s, I oversaw the development of the USSR's tactics to circumvent both this restriction and the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The general thrust of our research and concealment plans can be summarized as follows:

  • Do everything in our power to have the USSR's repository for smallpox virus transferred from the Ivanovsky Institute, which was not involved in any biological weapons research, to the State Center for Virology and Biotechnology, Vektor, in Koltsovo, near Novosibirsk. In the late 1980s, Vektor was doing biological weapons research on smallpox virus; the repository transfer would provide a plausible cover story.

  • Explore the genome of the smallpox virus as fully as possible, to facilitate genetic engineering operations with it and to enable an accurate comparison with related viruses. This research work was easily justified, as it also had a legitimate purpose. Since the WHO was planning to destroy the last remaining stores of smallpox virus, it was important to sequence the entire smallpox genome for future studies.

  • Using this genetic analysis, identify viruses closely related to smallpox, possession of which was not restricted, that could be substituted for smallpox virus in the bulk of the experiments. Using this method to decrease the amount of research that involved smallpox virus, we could attain our research goals while minimizing the possibility of having our illegal work detected. The viruses used most often were vaccinia (used for smallpox vaccination), ectromelia (mousepox), and monkeypox.

  • Perform genetic engineering work on these viruses, with the eventual aims of manipulating smallpox virulence factors and inserting genes of other viruses into smallpox to create chimera viruses. The purpose of creating chimera viruses was to design new organisms which would have a synergistic effect and/or evade current vaccines or treatments. One of the first chimera viruses planned involved the insertion of Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis (VEE) genes into smallpox. In the late 1980s, using the technique described above of substituting related viruses for smallpox, a chimera strain of ectromelia and VEE was created for initial testing. The tests indicated that this chimera strain simultaneously caused symptoms of both ectromelia and VEE in subject animals.

  • Claim that the genetic engineering work we were doing, which involved inserting foreign genes into vaccinia virus, was for the purpose of developing new vaccines, especially for research using vaccinia virus. At the time, I was skeptical that this argument would be convincing to the international community. Although indeed new vaccines can be developed in this way, vaccinia is not ideal for vaccine development because of the adverse reactions it can elicit, and in fact there are many other agents that would be more useful than vaccinia for vaccine development. Furthermore, vaccinia is so genetically similar to smallpox that I felt it would be obvious that we were focusing on vaccinia specifically because we were using vaccinia as a smallpox model in our research.

    Several pieces of information in the published literature suggest that Russia continues to follow the above-noted plans:

  • The repository for the smallpox virus was officially transferred from the Ivanovsky Institute to Vektor in 1994.

  • The genome of smallpox virus has been fully analyzed and compared to the genome of vaccinia.

  • Extensive genetic engineering research has been conducted using vaccinia virus, ostensibly for vaccine development. The research has entailed insertion of genes from Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis virus and from Ebola virus into the vaccinia genome.

  • Special research was done to find a spot in the vaccinia genome into which foreign genes could be inserted without disrupting viral virulence. Again, this research work was presented as essential for the development of new vaccines by inserting foreign genes into vaccinia. However, for human vaccines based on vaccinia virus, virulence would not be important (vaccinia is not virulent in humans, only in certain types of animals). On the other hand, if this research were being conducted for the eventual purpose of inserting foreign genes into smallpox for biological weapons purposes, preserving virulence would indeed be important.

This suggests that Russian scientists are continuing to carry out the research and concealment plans that were in place prior to my departure for the US in 1992. Of course, it is impossible to say with certainty whether this research is part of a continuing biological weapons program, for it generally has legitimate uses as well. However, it is important to bear in mind that the Soviet Union managed to hide its enormous biological weapons program from the West for decades, even after signing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. I have provided here only a few examples of the lengths to which the Soviets went in order to conceal their biological weapons program. Although Western intelligence suspected during the 1970s and 1980s that the Soviets were conducting some work in this area, it was only after the defection of a Soviet biological weapons scientist in 1989 that the West began to understand the extent of the program.

It is thus critical that the international community continue to pursue the establishment of adequate verification measures under the convention, as well as measures that will increase the transparency of research programs in Russia and elsewhere.

1 Before Dr. Alibek's departure for the US in 1992, he was the First Deputy Chief of Biopreparat, the civilian arm of the Soviet Union's biological weapons program. Dr. Alibek's research assistant, Jennifer Guernsey, participated in the preparation of this article.
2 Weapons formulation is the prepared agent, ready to be placed into spray tanks, bomblets or other munitions.
3 An opportunistic pathogen is an organism that is not normally pathogenic, but which can cause infection in unusual circumstances.

Copyright ISCIP 1998
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially
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