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Oct312018

Swords into Plowshares • Part 2

Kazakhstan: Bioweapons to Biomedicines 

By Prof. Shimon Silman, RYAL Institute and Touro College

THE TALES OF TWO SCIENTISTS

In 1979, the Soviet Ministry of Defense invited a promising young scientist named Vladimir Pasechnik to start his own bioresearch lab with an unlimited budget. The government had a peaceful or defensive explanation for every project, so at first Pasechnik believed he was part of a program, codenamed “Problem Number 5,” to develop vaccines for defensive purposes. 

But over the next few years, Pasechnik gradually pieced together a terrifying picture. He realized that the lab he had created, called the Institute of Ultra Pure Biochemical Preparations, wasn’t developing vaccines at all. Instead, Pasechnik and his team were part of a massive program called Ferment, or “Problem F,” that had a specific—and sinister—goal: to weaponize diseases for use against people.

When Pasechnik eventually defected to England in 1989, he told British intelligence officers that he’d created something so horrible that he couldn’t sleep at night: an aerosolized, antibiotic resistant version of plague, the most feared disease in human history. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, that weaponized plague and a vast network of other dangerous materials remained. Cell cultures of deadly pathogens were left in poorly secured facilities scattered across Central Asia and the Caucuses. Meanwhile, former Soviet scientists scrambled to find jobs, often for starvation wages. 

Raymond Zilinskas, director of the Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, was quoted in 2013 as saying, “There’s a real biosecurity threat in countries of the former Soviet Union, and the Russian government is remarkably uncooperative in this area,” he said. “Russia’s five anti-plague institutes are as secretive as they were in Soviet times, and we really don’t know why. So countries like Kazakhstan and Georgia are logical collaborators for these global anti-plague efforts.” Russia was much more cooperative in dismantling its nuclear weapons.

In 1992, Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, a biologist from the former Soviet Union, boarded a flight in Almaty for New York. When Dr. Alibekov—now known as Ken Alibek—sat down with the CIA, he had a terrifying secret to reveal: that the bio-weapons program the Soviet Union had supposedly stopped in the 1980’s hadn’t actually stopped at all. He knew this because he had led Moscow’s efforts to develop weapons-grade anthrax. In fact, he said, by 1989—around the time that Western leaders were urging the USSR to halt its secret bioweapons program, known as Biopreparat—the Soviet program had surpassed that of the US.

The secret Biopreparat program, mentioned above, came into sharp focus in 2001, when a former Soviet official explained to a Moscow newspaper the suspected basis of an outbreak of smallpox that sickened ten people and killed three in a community on the Aral Sea: they were the accidental victims of a Soviet

military field test at a bioweapon’s facility based on a nearby island, he said. Because some of those sickened had already been vaccinated against smallpox, the incident raised questions about the ability of vaccines to protect against state-designed bioweapons. 

One big problem, Dr. Alibek added, was that, like the stockpiles of nuclear weapons left in the dust of the Soviet Union, the materials and the expertise needed to make a bioweapon—anthrax, smallpox, cholera, plague, hemorrhagic fevers, and so on—could still be lying about, for sale to the highest bidder. While, in 1991, Kazakhstan’s nuclear weapons began to be dismantled and returned to Russia, Kazakhstan still maintained a store of pathogens that were once cherished by the Soviet military.

Another problem was the biologists who had been working for the former Soviet Union. The fall of the Soviet Union devastated their profession, leaving some formerly prominent scientists in places like Almaty scrambling for new work. As Dr. Alibek described it, ‘’We have lost control of them.” That sense of desperation, as well as Alibek’s defection to the US, has helped pump hundreds of millions of dollars into a U.S. Defense Department program to secure not just nuclear materials but chemical and biological ones—to establish a central secure location where these bioweapons materials would be stored, and these biologists would work on transforming them for peaceful purposes—biomedicines.

Recall that it was for these very reasons that the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) was established in Russia, and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR) was initiated —to secure and safeguard nuclear and bio-weapons materials, provide employment for high level former Soviet weapons scientists and transform the weapons technology for peaceful purposes, i.e., Swords into Plowshares.

THE CENTRAL REFERENCE LABORATORY

The central location for storing bioweapons material and where scientists now develop medicines and vaccines is a $102 million modern building known as the Central Reference Laboratory (CRL). It is meant to serve as a Central Asian waystation for a global war on dangerous diseases. 

As a project run by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the lab was built, and some of its early operation funded, by American taxpayers. Indeed, for the U.S. it is an anti-terror investment as the U.S. is very interested in keeping sensitive materials and knowledge in the right hands—and brains. As Lt. Col. Charles Carlton, director of the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency office in Kazakhstan, has pointed out, “You cannot erase this knowledge from someone’s mind. The threat of scientists going rogue is a serious concern. We’re doing our best to employ these people. Our hope is that through gainful employment they won’t be drawn down other avenues.”

The Defense Department envisions itself as playing a central role in monitoring pathogen outbreaks and for which it received new funding after the anthrax attacks in 2001. In 2012, the White House announced a program that consolidated these efforts under the banner of “bio-surveillance.” 

With another smaller lab at a military base in the town of Otar, in western Kazakhstan on the Caspian Sea, and a flurry of similar projects in the works—in Russia, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—the Pentagon hopes its Defense Threat Reduction Agency can also establish a regional early warning system for infections and outbreaks. 

As Lt. Col. Carlton summed it up, “Kazakhstan has come so far in terms of government organization and understanding the threat and the problem. This is a country that willingly said, we want to get rid of this threat and take the lead. Kazakhstan has opened up as an exemplar around the world.”

Using Department of Defense funds and a bioweapons laboratory to set up an early warning system to monitor outbreaks of infectious diseases…that’s really Swords into Plowshares!

Dr. Bakyt B. Atshabar, head of the Kazakh Scientific Center of Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases, the institute that manages the CRL, is keenly aware of the dangers of weapons development: his father helped diagnose the effects of weapons tests on thousands of people who lived near the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, in the north of the country. But their main focus will be on developing expertise in identifying and preventing deadly contagious diseases.

“We’re looking forward to this becoming a regional training facility focused both on human and animal infections,” he said. “Cholera is also one of the major problems in our region, mostly with our numerous southern neighbors.” Increased trade with China, its neighbor to the east, also threatens to increase the transmission of disease. “Along with the construction of pipelines,” he said, “come rodents and fleas” that can transmit diseases.

From a security and safety perspective, the CRL represents a giant leap. When a documentarian visited the old Soviet-era laboratory in 2006, he saw buildings and security measures not likely to intimidate a determined terrorist (or scientist) from sneaking some anthrax or plague out into the wild. Small locks on refrigerators were all that kept deadly vials from a fast escape. “We’re not that far from places where terrorist groups are living relatively openly,” he said. “They would love to break in here, they would love to get hold of this stuff.” 

The Almaty lab will be outfitted with safety features like double-door access zones and special containment hoods, enough to qualify it under U.S. Centers for Disease Control standards as a level 3 biosafety lab (BSL-3; the highest level is BSL-4). Only a fraction of the lab will be dedicated to lethal diseases and certified at BSL-3; most of the other labs at the 87,000 square foot building will be BSL-2, for the non-lethal variety.

THE MOST FEARED HUMAN DISEASE

Throughout history, the disease has claimed hundreds of millions of lives, including roughly one-third of the entire population of Europe in the 14th century, when the infection was called the Black Death. But it’s not just a thing of the past: Plague is now regarded as a “re-emerging disease,” with several thousand cases occurring all over the world each year—including an outbreak in northern Kyrgyzstan in 2013. 

Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plagues, is spread by rats and fleas. Plague symptoms include sudden fever, chills, and extreme weakness. Bubonic plague also produces swollen, painful lymph nodes, called buboes. Septicemic plague causes portions of skin to turn black and die. When caught early and treated with antibiotics, naturally occurring forms of bubonic and septicemic plague are not usually fatal. But pneumonic plague, the most severe, is harder to treat and is the only form of the disease that can spread from person to person.

That’s why the CRL is so important: In the event of an outbreak of plague, anthrax, cholera, or other diseases, scientists would access a reference index of various disease strains for immediate identification, diagnosis, and treatment, according to Lt. Col. Carlton. “The hope is that this will become a regional center for scientists from throughout Central Asia and the Caucuses to exchange information and conduct training and research,” he said, adding that the CRL will act as a hub for a large network of Kazakh diagnostic laboratories. “That free exchange of information between scientists and researchers is really the biggest benefit.” 

Plague is already a focus of work at the existing lab in Almaty because it occurs naturally in nearly 40 percent of the country. The Kazakh Scientific Center, the institute that manages the CRL, began in 1949 as the Central Asian Anti-Plague Scientific Research Institute. There are about 3,000 cases per year.

The United States, Japan, the European Union, and the Russian Federation began to form the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) in 1992 in order to address concerns that former Soviet WMD scientists could be attracted to rogue countries such as Iran that might seek to develop nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons programs. (See my book Scientific Thought in Messianic Times, Chapter III) Soon after, the ISTC expanded to include a number of former Soviet states, with Kazakhstan among them. According to a 2014 tally by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the ISTC has “supported the work of more than 70,000 former weapons scientists” since its inception. This included important contributions to the Aktau project and other efforts described in this article.

In fact, the center has functioned many times as a stop-gap when other efforts to employ scientists failed. For example, the ISTC stepped up to provide work for biological scientists and other workers from Stepnogorsk during gaps between other conversion and elimination projects. It has also forged productive science and technical relationships during times of heightened political and security tensions.

In addition to Kazakhstan benefiting from the ISTC, over the past two decades it has become one of the center’s leaders. Kazakhstan has hosted regular seminars, workshops, and training sessions in recent years, dealing with issues such as countering illicit trafficking in WMD materials and biosecurity. 

When Russia began backing out of the ISTC in 2014 and indicated that it would no longer host its headquarters, Kazakhstan offered to be the center’s new host. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised the ISTC in 2015, the first year of its new home in Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan. He said, “The International Science and Technology Center, which is engaging in the initiative to prevent a brain drain from the former Soviet republics in order to ensure nuclear non-proliferation, made a fresh start here at Nazarbayev University this summer. Japan will continue to support this institution’s activities, which have now continued for more than 20 years.”

We have documented the transformation of Kazakhstan in detail to emphasize, once again, that the Swords into Plowshares transformation is pervasive and gradually taking hold through the world. As a group of scientists at the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics has said, “The peaceful use of military technology represents the trend of history.” Or as we would say, “Swords into Plowshares is here to stay.”

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