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The Growing Threat of Biological Weapons

The terrorist threat is very real, and it's about to get worse. Scientists should concern themselves before it's too late

Steven Block

Modern-Day Transgressions

On November 25, 1969, under President Nixon, the U.S. announced that it would unilaterally and unconditionally renounce all biological weapons. Following executive order, the U.S. program was summarily terminated, and the Department of Defense was instructed to destroy all remaining stockpiles of weapons based on biological agents. This order was extended the following year to cover toxin weapons, including biologically produced toxins. The existing American stockpiles of biological weapons were destroyed between May 1971 and May 1972.

These welcome developments paved the way for the landmark international treaty of April 10, 1972, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (or BWC)??which has now been signed by 160 nations and ratified by 143. Among the countries that have signed and ratified the treaty are the U.S., Great Britain, China, the Russian Federation, Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea??some of which figure prominently in reports of actual or suspected bioweapons programs. Eighteen nations signed the treaty but subsequently failed to ratify it??including Egypt, Syria and Somalia??and 34 nations haven't even signed it, including Israel.

The BWC, which went into force in March 1975, took ambitious steps to ban both biological and chemical weapons, including their development, production, procurement or stockpiling for any hostile purpose or use in armed conflict. Unfortunately, the BWC incorporated no provisions to investigate or follow up on suspicious activities. It lacked "teeth."

Perhaps the greatest BWC transgression of all occurred between 1972 and 1992, when a truly massive bioweapons effort was under way in the Soviet Union. Despite endorsing the BWC Treaty, the Soviet Union carried out ultra-secret bioweapons work right up until it collapsed in 1990. Some experts contend that a low, but significant, level of research still exists today. Revelations of the staggering scope of the Soviet program have only recently come to light, after the much-publicized defection of Ken Alibek??formerly Colonel Kanatjan Alibekov??the Deputy Director of Biopreparat, the Soviet state "pharmaceutical" agency charged with carrying out bioweapons research.

Alibek has called Biopreparat "the darkest conspiracy of the cold war" and tells a chilling tale. During the heyday of the Soviet program, Alibek supervised as many as 32,000 people (out of 60,000 in the program) at nearly 40 facilities spread throughout the Soviet Union??effectively a "toxic archipelago." Here the Soviets worked not only on perfecting "conventional" biological weapons based on anthrax, glanders and plague, but also on weaponizing deadly (and highly contagious) viruses such as smallpox, Marburg and Ebola. In contrast to the American bioweapons effort, the Soviets considered the best bioweapons agents to be those for which there was no prevention and no cure.

Figure 3. Biological agentsClick to Enlarge Image

It was during Biopreparat's heyday, in 1979, that the "Sverdlovsk incident" occurred. In April and May of that year, about 100 people and uncounted livestock suddenly died of anthrax in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), a city of 1.2 million people. All the victims were located within a narrow band directly downwind of a secure microbiological facility run by the military. The Soviet authorities blamed the deaths on contaminated meat (intestinal anthrax), whereas U.S. agencies attributed the deaths to inhalation anthrax. The latter explanation would constitute prima facie evidence for violation of the BWC. International investigations followed, some involving noted Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson. His group's reports, although somewhat critical, initially seemed to lend credence to the Soviet explanation. However, subsequent findings and detailed witness accounts left little room for doubt.

Today, it appears that the deaths were precipitated by a shift worker at the microbiological installation who removed a critical filter that had clogged. The filter happened to be on the output of a drying machine used to remove liquid from industrial-scale cultures of anthrax spores, which were being produced for bioweapons. An aerosol of spores was released from the unit's exhaust pipes over a period of several hours before the mistake was discovered. Sverdlovsk suffered the single largest epidemic of inhalation anthrax in history. In 1992, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin formally acknowledged the true origin of the outbreak.

The current economic and political climate in the former Soviet Union raises the disturbing likelihood that their bioweapons experts will be forced to seek employment elsewhere, resulting in unwelcome proliferation. The analogous problem arises for former Soviet nuclear experts, of course, but bioweapons issues have received comparatively little attention and scant resources.

The BWC was also clearly violated by Iraq, which established extensive programs for the development of both chemical and biological weapons under Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s. Details of these programs only surfaced in the wake of the Gulf War, following investigations conducted by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in charge of Iraqi disarmament. As a result of these investigations, more is known today about the once-secret bioweapons program in Iraq than that of almost any other nation. Iraq maintained several distinct facilities, including those at the Muthanna State Establishment (the principal chemical weapons plant), Salman Pak (the main biowarfare research center, just south of Baghdad), the "Single-Cell Protein Production Plant" at Al Hakam (the main bioweapons production facility, allegedly built to produce animal feed) and the Foot and Mouth Disease Center at Al Manal (a site for biowarfare research on viruses).

Figure 4. Institutes and facilitiesClick to Enlarge Image

The Al Hakam facility began mass production of weapons-grade anthrax in 1989 and eventually generated at least 8,000 liters (based on declared amounts). This plant was not bombed during the Gulf War in 1991, and its true role in Iraq's bioweapons program was not established until 1995, at which point the U.N. ordered its destruction. Relevant portions of the facilities at Salman Pak and Al Manal were also destroyed, either by the Iraqis themselves or under direct UNSCOM supervision.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Iraq officially acknowledged that it had worked with several species of bacterial pathogen??including Bacillus anthracis, Clostridium botulinum and Clostridium perfringens (which causes gas gangrene)??and several viruses??including enterovirus 17 (human conjunctivitis), rotavirus and camel pox. They also purified biological toxins, including botulinum toxin, ricin and aflatoxin. In total, a half million liters of biological agents were grown.

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