From firstname.lastname@example.org Wed Jun 21 11:01:55 2000
From: Vera Hassner Sharav
In Gamble, U.S. Supports Russian Germ Warfare Scientists
By Judith Miller, New York Times, 20 June 2000
BOLENSK, Russia -- At this sprawling, rundown research complex where Soviet scientists once secretly worked to turn plague, tularemia, glanders and anthrax into weapons, the Clinton administration is taking what many consider a perilous gamble.
The administration has been financing research here and at other institutes throughout the former Soviet Union by scientists who only a decade ago manipulated genes to make deadly viruses and bacteria even hardier and resistant to vaccines and antibiotics.
Since 1994, the United States government has spent $20 million helping some 2,200 scientists at 30 institutes in the former Soviet Union turn their deadly skills to public health and other peaceful research. Administration officials say this money -- which, according to the General Accounting Office may increase to $270 million by 2005 -- is also intended to prevent the Soviet scientists from selling their expertise to Iran, Iraq, and other "rogue" states or terrorist groups trying to acquire germ weapons.
Until recently, most of the support came from the Departments of State, Defense, and Energy. But prompted by the threats of bioterrorism and naturally emerging diseases to American health and the nation's food supply, the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and others have now joined the campaign.
Among the most intriguing newcomers is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, the military group that helped invent the Internet and which is known for supporting avant-garde research. Darpa has cautiously and quietly allocated more than $3 million since 1998 for work, including some here at Obolensk, that in many ways resembles research that was once the source of America's greatest fears.
The administration knows that this assistance could help Russia continue developing germ weapons, if, as some suspect, research continues at its four still-closed military labs. Can the Russians, who doubled the size of their vast covert germ warfare program after signing the 1972 treaty banning such weapons, now be trusted?
"No one really knows," Wendy Orent, an expert on the former Soviet program, concluded last month in American Prospect, a liberal magazine.
But in a report to Congress in January, the Pentagon concluded that the access gained to Obolensk through such assistance gave it "high confidence" that neither Obolensk nor Vector, the former Soviet viral weapons complex in Siberia, was now engaged in activities related to germ warfare.
In fact, the administration maintains that the risk of not helping Russian scientists far outweighs the risk of doing so. Darpa argues that tapping the knowledge of the Russian scientists, who continued making ever deadlier germ weapons two decades after President Richard M. Nixon ended America's program in 1969, will benefit science and strengthen American national security.
Still, the risks are obvious here at Obolensk.
In a way, the place is a monument of sorts to communism's failure. Many of its 90 buildings are half-built; several labs appear abandoned. Weeds have replaced the grass shown in photos of the installation in its prime.
Fifty miles southwest of Moscow but unlisted on Soviet maps, Obolensk until recently was closed not only to foreigners, but also to Soviet scientists who were not part of the germ warfare program. Last month, however, Gen. Nikolai N. Urakov, the institute's long-serving director, invited an American reporter to attend the first large open scientific conference Obolensk has ever sponsored.
The remnants of germ warfare research are still eerily evident: the heavy metal locks on doors on the third and fourth floors of Building No. 1, which confined the most deadly of Obolensk's collection of 2,000 strains of pathogens to air-tight rooms; giant pipes that carried breathable air to scientists in contaminated areas, emergency telephones, fire extinguishers, alarms and even the space suits on display at the building's entrance.
While such suits are still worn on the third floor where scientists still study the most dangerous agents, Russia says that these labs are now dedicated to preventing and curing disease.
American scientists with proper vaccinations have been permitted to visit the "hot" labs in Building 1, the nine-story, glass-and-metal heart of this vast complex.
Aid from the United States, much of it channeled through a multinational group known as the International Science and Technology Center, now pays roughly half of the institute's costs.
Obolensk now employs 1,125 scientists and technicians, about half its peak size.
With $3.45 million in grants from the multinational group, Obolensk has become the second largest recipient of American biological aid after Vector. Andy Weber, a special adviser to the Pentagon's Office of Threat Reduction, told conferees last month that aid to Obolensk rose sharply in 1997 after General Urakov rejected Iranian overtures to share his center's biological expertise with Tehran.
Still, few officials deny the potential danger in American financing of Obolensk's most advanced work. Consider Darpa's $175,000, two-year grant to Igor V. Abaev, a senior researcher and weapons program veteran. His goal is to isolate and compare genomes of Burkholderia, which causes glanders, an inflammatory disease that strikes horses, mules and other animals and sometimes people.
There is no human vaccine to prevent glanders, and once contracted, the disease is not always curable.
Dr. Abaev combines single strands of DNA from two different types of Burkholderia. The DNA parts that are identical, or extremely similar in both strands, then form a double strand with each other. The parts that do not pair up, or pair up poorly, are unique to those species. This process, called subtractive hybridization, enables scientists to identify, and later to clone the fragments that differentiate the two species. This, in turn, produces diagnostic markers that could lead to vaccines designed to emphasize those differences.
"As weapons, such organisms represent a serious potential biological threat," said Stephen S. Morse, program manager in Darpa's defense sciences office. "But because these two species primarily affected horses, American scientists stopped working on them decades ago. As a result, we now know all too little about them."
Only a month ago, he noted, a scientist at the Army's research lab at Fort Detrick, Md., who was trying to develop a glanders vaccine accidentally contracted the disease.
Officials in Washington are still trying to determine what happened.
Dr. Abaev enthusiastically displayed the new equipment that the American grant had enabled him to buy, including a hybridization chamber, which allows him to mix the DNA fragments. Though such machines are standard in the United States, they remain rare in cash-strapped Russia.
Another joint project generating excitement and concern is a $500,000 grant from the International Science and Technology Center to a collaboration that includes Nikolai A. Staritsin, an expert on anthrax, the former Soviet Union's germ weapon of choice, and American researchers at the Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, and at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The scientists are using DNA fingerprinting, molecular typing, plasmid profiling and other modern techniques of molecular epidemiology to identify anthrax strains by region and to help scientists distinguish among virulent and nonvirulent strains. They hope to improve their understanding of what specifically causes anthrax outbreaks.
Although the United States and Russia have vaccines to prevent the disease and antibiotics that supposedly cure it, Dr. Staritsin said much remained unknown about the DNA fragments already examined, including the reason some genes were latent and others were not.
While both the United States and Russia made weapons from anthrax, Ken Alibek, a senior scientist who defected from the Soviet secret program, argues that Russian scientists have produced anthrax strains that are hardier and more virulent than those from the United States.
Scientists from the United States first understood just how advanced the Russians were in the mid-1990's when Dr. Staritsin and Andrei Pomerantsev, another Obolensk scientist, reported that they had transferred genes from Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that normally does not cause disease in humans, into anthrax, which if untreated, is highly lethal.
Hamsters that were given this new agent did not respond to Russia's own vaccine against anthrax. This news caused furious debate among Western scientists, who wondered why the Russians were bothering to create such a strain, and deep anxiety over whether the United States' own vaccine would be able to block the new Russian creation. Washington has been eager to obtain a sample of the strain ever since.
Dr. Staritsin insisted in an interview that he and his colleagues had not tried to develop a modified disease impervious to anyone's vaccine or antibiotics when they performed the manipulation in 1993.
They decided to transfer the genes, he said, because the two organisms were "closely related and often found in soil in close proximity." They feared that one day the two organisms might naturally exchange genes without any external intervention. "We wanted to understand what the result might be," he said.
In any event, he said, the new strain was too unstable to be useful in weapons.
Some will view this work as evidence that Russian scientists "were trying to make an even nastier weapon," one American said. "Others will not. How do you gauge intent?"
Whether Russia is honoring President Boris N. Yeltsin's 1992 pledge to end the secret germ warfare program may never be known. But in Dr. Staritsin's case, concerns are diminishing, United States officials say. Shortly before the Obolensk conference, he and a Russian colleague traveled to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and to Fort Detrick to give American scientists samples of two rare Russian strains from Obolensk's collection of 3,000 anthrax strains, believed to be the world's largest.
Though the "Tzenkovsky" strains, named for their late 19th-century Russian inventor, are nonvirulent and hence, usable only in vaccines, the exchange established the legal and scientific precedents for future trades of virulent strains, like the genetically modified strain that American scientists have long coveted. The exchange will probably occur later this year or early next, Russian and American experts say.
"They didn't need us to do their research," said an American scientist as he sipped one of the endless tiny glasses of vodka that lined a dinner's banquet table during the conference.
"They were way ahead of us in many areas despite their obsolete equipment and bulldozer investigative techniques. So we have every interest in helping them overcome their past and join the world's transparent scientific community."