SAN FRANCISCO -- Despite recent efforts by Washington to turn pathogens into panaceas, Russia's once-immense biological weapons (BW) program continues to be a cause for anxiety. That country's research institutes and production facilities are poorly guarded and susceptible to corruption and theft, all causes for concern about the proliferation of lethal microbes and bioweapons expertise, says a Cornell University researcher.
In addition, Russia continues to deny access to four Ministry of Defense biological weapons facilities. "We have no proof, but there are concerns that Russia is restricting access to retain its biological weapons capability. We hope there are other reasons," says Kathleen Vogel, a postdoctoral associate at the Peace Studies Program at Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y.
Vogel, a Ph.D. chemist, will discuss "Proliferation Threats from Former Soviet Biological Weapons Facilities in Kazakhstan" at the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at the Hilton San Francisco today (Feb.16, 2:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.).
Her talk stems from a recent visit to three former BW facilities in the Republic of Kazakhstan and is part of a AAAS panel on "Arms Control and Proliferation Concerns from Former Soviet Weapons Facilities." Vogel says she organized the seminar to "raise awareness of these issues in the scientific community" because she believes that scientists can help redirect weapons research laboratories in the former Soviet Union to peaceful purposes, such as developing remedies for human, animal and agricultural diseases.
Despite Washington's efforts to effect change, says Vogel, "proliferation of bioweapons technology from these facilities is still a concern." In 1991, the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act (the so-called Nunn-Lugar legislation) was passed by the U.S. Congress, resulting in the allocation of nearly $1 billion a year for nonproliferation assistance and the dismantling of weapons in the former Soviet Union. As a result, former biological weapons specialists in Russia and the New Independent States have received funding, to redirect their research for peaceful purposes, through several U.S. agencies,
including the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services and State. However, notes Vogel, this funding "is a mere two-tenths of 1 percent of the total U.S. defense budget."
A continuing worry, she says, is that of theft of dangerous pathogens from laboratories. "Because of unstable economic conditions in Russia, you can't rule out people engaging in proliferation through temptation or corruption," she says. At the top of the anxiety list is the possible theft of smallpox virus cultures. Although there are only two official repositories for the virus worldwide, at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and at the State Research Center for Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Russia, it is possible that other facilities in Russia also harbor the virus. Smallpox was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1980.
Possible repositories of smallpox virus, says Vogel, are four former Soviet biological weapons research facilities that remain closed to the international community. These plants are located in Kirov, Yekaterinburg, Sergiev Posad and St. Petersburg. Although the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1975, prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons, the treaty has lacked inspection protocols. As a result, says Vogel, the four restricted Russian plants remain a question mark on international efforts to eliminate the threat of biological weapons.
Other pathogens causing concern, she says, are genetically engineered strains of anthrax and plague bacteria developed by Soviet researchers that are resistant to Western antibiotics. Soviet researchers also developed animal pathogens for use against agricultural targets.
The major threats of proliferation of biological weapons technology, says Vogel, come from countries such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea, which are in the market for unique cultures of dangerous pathogens and Russian expertise. In the early 1990s there were U.S. intelligence reports, she notes, that some Russian biological weapons scientists had been recruited as consultants to Iran.
Less of a worry, she says, are pathogens reaching the hands of terrorist organizations, "because turning a living organism into a potent biological weapon is more technically challenging than has been widely reported." For this reason, Russian expertise would be highly desirable for states wishing to perfect their existing BW capabilities. This makes the "brain drain" of Russian bioweapons scientists perhaps the most serious proliferation threat. Says Vogel: "U.S. nonproliferation programs are essential because we must make it more difficult for states to recruit these scientists and obtain their sophisticated bioweapons technologies and know-how."
Related World Wide Web sites:
o Federation of American Scientists: http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/bwc/news/
o The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention:
o The Henry L. Stimson Center: http://www.stimson.org/cwc/index.html
o Center for Nonproliferation Studies: http://cns.miis.edu/research/cbw.htm
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