Soviet Germ Factories Pose New Threat

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 20, 2005

ODESSA, Ukraine -- For 50 years under Soviet rule, nearly everything about the Odessa Antiplague Station was a state secret, down to the names of the deadly microbes its white-coated workers collected and stored in a pair of ordinary freezers.

Cloistered in a squat, gray building at the tip of a rusting shipping dock, the station's biologists churned out reports on grave illnesses that were mentioned only in code. Anthrax was Disease No. 123, and plague, which killed thousands here in the 19th century, was No. 127. Each year, researchers added new specimens to their frozen collection and shared test results with sister institutes along a network controlled by Moscow.

Today, the Soviets are gone but the lab is still here, in this Black Sea port notorious for its criminal gangs and black markets. It is just one of more than 80 similar "antiplague" labs scattered across the former Soviet Union, from the turbulent Caucasus to Central Asian republics that share borders with Iran and Afghanistan. Each is a repository of knowledge, equipment and lethal pathogens that weapons experts have said could be useful to bioterrorists.

After decades of operating in the shadows, the labs are beginning to shed light on another secret: How the Soviet military co-opted obscure civilian institutes into a powerful biological warfare program that built weapons for spreading plague and anthrax spores. As they ramped up preparations for germ warfare in the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet generals mined the labs for raw materials, including highly lethal strains of viruses and bacteria that were intended for use in bombs and missiles.

The facilities' hidden role is described in a draft report of a major investigation by scholars from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The main conclusions of the report, which was provided to The Washington Post, were echoed in interviews with current and former U.S. officials familiar with the labs. Most scientists who worked in antiplague stations in Soviet times knew nothing of their contributions to the weapons program, the report says.

The labs today are seeking to fill a critical role in preventing epidemics in regions where medical services and sanitation have deteriorated since Soviet times. But an equally pressing challenge is security: How to prevent the germ collections and biological know-how from being sold or stolen.

"They often have culture collections of pathogens that lack biosecurity, and they employ people who are well-versed in investigating and handling deadly pathogens," said Raymond A. Zilinskas, a bioweapons expert and coauthor of the draft report on the antiplague system. "Some are located at sites accessible to terrorist groups and criminal groups. The potential is that terrorists and criminals would have little problem acquiring the resources that reside in these facilities."

Managers of the old antiplague stations are aware of their vulnerabilities but lack the most basic resources for dealing with them, according to the Monterey authors and U.S. officials. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, budgets at the institutes have fallen so steeply that even the simplest security upgrades are out of reach. One facility in a Central Asian capital could not even afford a telephone and had no way of contacting police in the event of a break-in. At least two antiplague centers outside Russia have acknowledged burglaries or break-ins within the past three years, though there are no confirmed reports of stolen pathogens or missing lab equipment, Monterey officials said.

The lack of modern biosafety equipment is also raising concern among U.S. officials about the potential for an accidental release of deadly bacteria and viruses. In Odessa, where 44 scientists and about 140 support staff carry out research in the I.I. Mechnikov Antiplague Scientific and Research Institute, scientists wearing cotton smocks and surgical masks work with lethal microbes that in the West would be locked away in high-containment laboratories and handled only by scientists in spacesuits.

The lab's scientists said their training in handling dangerous materials allowed them to work safely with pathogens without Western-style safety equipment -- which they viewed as unnecessary and which in any case they cannot afford.

"Many of the institutes are located in downtown areas, and some work with pathogens with windows wide open," said Sonia Ben Ouagrham, who coauthored the Monterey study with Zilinskas and Alexander Melikishvili.

The obscurity of the antiplague stations is hampering their ability to fix the problems, the researchers said. The institutes were not officially part of the Soviet bioweapons complex, so they have been deemed ineligible for the tens of millions of dollars in aid given each year by U.S. and Western governments to keep former weapons scientists from selling their expertise.

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