Anthrax Catastrophe
Brewing On Asian Island?
By Judith Miller
NY Times
VOZROZHDENIYE ISLAND, Uzbekistan -- In the spring of 1988, germ scientists 850 miles east of Moscow were ordered to undertake their most critical mission.
Working in great haste and total secrecy, the scientists in the city of Sverdlovsk transferred hundreds of tons of anthrax bacteria -- enough to destroy the world many times over -- into giant stainless-steel canisters, poured bleach into them to decontaminate the deadly pink powder, packed the canisters onto a train two dozen cars long and sent the illicit cargo almost a thousand miles across Russia and Kazakhstan to this remote island in the heart of the inland Aral Sea, American and Central Asian officials say.
Here Russian soldiers dug huge pits and poured the sludge into the ground, burying the germs and, Moscow hoped, a grave political threat.
While Mikhail S. Gorbachev was pressing his glasnost and perestroika campaign and warming ties with the West, intelligence evidence was mounting in Washington that the Soviet Union, contrary to its treaty pledges, was producing tons of deadly germs for weapons that the world had banned. The stockpile had to be destroyed in case the United States and Britain demanded an inspection, Russian scientists close to the program said.
Vozrozhdeniye Island was a natural choice. Until the military left here for good in 1992, Renaissance Island, as it translates from the Russian, had been the Soviet Union's major open-air testing site. Today, Renaissance Island, which the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan now share, is the world's largest anthrax burial ground.
For the United States, it is an intelligence gold mine. At the invitation of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, American military scientists and intelligence experts have secretly been traveling here for the past four years -- most recently last October -- to survey the island and take samples of the buried bacteria, according to senior Uzbek and American officials.
What they have found is stunning, the experts say.
Tests of soil samples from six of 11 vast burial pits show that, although the anthrax was soaked in bleach at least twice, once inside the 66-gallon containers and again after it was dumped into the sandy pits and buried for a decade under 3-to-5 feet of sand, some of the spores are still alive -- and potentially deadly.
Tests on the samples performed by American military laboratories have shown that the anthrax vaccine now being given, in six shots and a yearly booster, to 2.4 million Americans in uniform is effective against the Russian strain of this ancient, deadly scourge -- at least the strain found on the island.
While this has reassured the Clinton administration, the discovery of live spores has alarmed Kazakhstan and especially worries Uzbekistan, which has been exploring for oil on the two-thirds of the island it controls.
Because the Aral Sea is shrinking -- the result of wrongheaded Soviet irrigation policies -- this now-deserted, isolated island has grown from 77 square miles to 770 and will soon be connected to the mainland.
Uzbek and Kazakh experts fear the buried anthrax spores could escape their sandy tomb, stirred up by carriers like gophers and other rodents, lizards and birds, and be brought to Uzbek and Kazakh territory. The disease is spread from animals to people by direct contact; it is treatable with antibiotics if detected immediately. As a weapon, it would be disbursed as an aerosol, for inhalation.
Central Asian and American officials fear that, as access to the island eases, the buried anthrax could be used by terrorists to make more of the deadly agent.
In addition, officials said, exposure to the spores could add a new threat to a population whose health is already considered abysmal. International medical experts are just starting to assess which of their many chronic ailments are attributable to poverty and environmental degradation and which might be linked to the region's biological and chemical legacy.
The Island: Breeding of Germs, Breeding of Fears
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which have both renounced weapons of mass destruction, have independently asked the United States for help in assessing, or cleaning up this terrible biological legacy of Soviet rule. In addition, Uzbekistan permitted this correspondent to visit Renaissance Island earlier this year -- the first visit by a journalist -- and to interview officials and scientists concerned about the biological hazards here.
The trip, coupled with interviews with about two dozen scientists, government officials and military experts in Central Asia, Russia and the United States, has shed light on one of the most closely guarded biological secrets of the Cold War. Although Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued an edict in 1992 closing the site and vowing that the laboratory would be dismantled and decontaminated within three years, the cash-strapped Moscow government never followed through. And Russia has never acknowledged responsibility for the anthrax cemetery here.
Military scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command and other laboratories where the samples are being studied refused comment on the island and the tests. But other officials said the labs were still deciphering the Russian anthrax's molecular structure and trying to determine why spores collected from some of the pits did not die.
"We have always known that anthrax is hard to kill," said one military expert, who would only discuss this highly classified activity if he were not identified. "But this strain has proven especially durable, and this wasn't even the most powerful strains the Soviets made."
Signs of life diminish as the Soviet-era MI-8 helicopter speeds toward this island, a 90-minute flight from Nukus, the nearest Uzbek military base. As the chopper approaches the island, fishermen in their wooden boats disappear as what was once a living sea becomes marshland. Scraggly trees give way to patches of sagebrush until, finally, there is nothing left to see below save salt-covered, cement-colored sand that the sea once covered, now as dry and cracked as an ancient face. Nothing seems to live here, not even birds.
Given its remote location and inhospitable climate, the island was long a favored Russian spot for secretive arrangements. A study soon to be published by the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California concludes that the island and the former port city of Aralsk, now about 60 miles from the sea and part of Kazakhstan, were first used by the KGB's predecessor as exile camps for kulaks, the private farmers whom Stalin repressed.
In 1936, wrote Gulbarshyn Bozheyeva, the study's principle author, Vozrozhdeniye and the city that administered the island were placed under the Ministry of Defense, which in 1954 built a biological weapons test site on the island, calling it Aralsk-7.
"The lack of vegetation," she wrote, "hot and dry climate, and sandy soil reaching 140 degrees Fahrenheit in summer" were perfect for germ testing in that they would "reduce the spread and survival of pathogenic organisms."
American officials said that although satellites recorded some unusual activity on the island in 1988, the United States did not learn that the Soviets had buried anthrax from Sverdlosk here until 1992, when Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, or Ken Alibek, as he is now known, a high-ranking germ weapons official, defected. Alibek had been the director of the giant Soviet anthrax production plant at Stepnogorsk, which is now in Kazakhstan. Between 1988 and his defection, he was the deputy director of Biopreparat, the secret network of some 40 supposedly peaceful facilities, including Stepnogorsk, that provided civilian cover for bio-weapons work.
In his book, "Biohazard" (Random House, 1999), Alibek does not disclose either that anthrax was buried on the island or what he told American officials during his debriefing. But he does report that such germ weapons as tularemia, Q-fever, brucellosis, glanders and plague were tested on Vozrozhdeniye beginning in the 1970s. In 1986 and 1987, he added in an interview, a strain of plague that was resistant to standard antibiotics was tested. In 1987, the book states, Alibek's scientists tested the powerful anthrax that he had developed at Stepnogorsk.
The Monterey study and Alibek say that the Soviet military labs also tested typhus, botulinum toxin, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, smallpox and microbial strains with characteristics useful in warfare, such as high virulence, resistance to ultraviolet rays or heat, and genetically engineered strains developed in the late 1980s.
Today, evidence of the grim research abounds. Clearly visible as one approaches the vast laboratory complex and test range are the telephone poles one kilometer apart on which detectors to measure germ agents were mounted and to which animals were tied during open-air testing.
The abandoned laboratory and high-containment unit that once handled the deadliest of agents have been stripped of equipment, pipes and even their floor and wall-tiles -- shiny, light-green mosaics decorated with a fish motif. What the Soviets left behind, scavengers, apparently impervious to the potential danger of contamination, have stripped away for sale, intelligence experts say.
The enclosed vivaria that once housed thousands of smaller animals killed in the testing -- rabbits, guinea pigs, white mice and hamsters, as well as such larger animals as horses, sheep, donkeys, monkeys and baboons -- are empty, their windows smashed or missing, their roofs collapsed. Hundreds of small cages are stacked together in a dilapidated storage room; in another stands a human-sized cage, apparently for what scientists call "non-human primates," or man-sized monkeys. Hundreds of them died hideous deaths, sometimes in a single experiment, say Russian and American scientists.
The stench of the laboratory is familiar to veterans of the gruesome world of germ warfare -- a mixture of bleach, dust, animal dung and death.
On the northern part of the site, less than a mile from the laboratory, are the three-story barracks, residential homes, kindergarten, and cafeteria used by the Russians scientists who worked here and their families, about a thousand people in all.
Russian scientists who worked here said that most of the children were not vaccinated against the agents that were tested only a few miles downwind.
"We didn't test unless the wind was blowing south, away from the living quarters," said Dr. Gennadi L. Lepyoshkin, the former Soviet colonel who was Stepnogorsk's director after Alibek and was vaccinated against many of the lethal pathogens he tested.
In a recent interview at Stepnogorsk, Lepyoshkin, who is now director of Kazakhstan's peaceful National Center for Biotechnology and a co-author of the Monterey study, spoke almost nostalgically of his weeks here in the mid-1980s.
"The island was smaller and beautiful then, and the lab much closer to the sea," Lepyoshkin, displaying the water colors he painted and landscapes he sketched when he wasn't working with deadly microbes, playing volleyball, drinking vodka, or engaging in other island pastimes.
The Residue: Seeking U.S. Aid to Clean Up Site
In interviews in Tashkent, Uzbek officials said that only after their country became independent in 1992 did they understand the implications of their biological legacy. "We were shocked when we first learned the real picture," said Isan M. Mustafoev, Uzbekistan's deputy foreign minister. Alarmed by the health and environmental impact of unconventional weapons, Islom Karimov, Uzbekistan's president, renounced them.
In 1995, after Moscow refused to tell Uzbekistan what chemical or biological facilities had been built on Uzbek territory or what had been tested or buried here, Tashkent asked Washington for help, Mustafoev explained. 1/8On May 25, the United States and Uzbekistan signed a bilateral agreement that provides up to $6 million in American aid to dismantle and decontaminate a former Soviet chemical weapons testing facility near the Aral Sea.)
Kazakhstan had quietly permitted Pentagon officials to visit Vozrozhdeniye in 1995. Two years later, Uzbekistan independently invited more American experts to take samples of the buried anthrax, Mustafoev said.
Because the Uzbek Ministry of Defense was responsible for the American mission, Mustafoev said that his ministry was not told precisely what the tests showed about the samples that American teams collected in 1995, 1997 and last October. The last mission's goal, American officials said, was to determine why the some of the anthrax had survived.
In their major forays, the experts added, the Americans wore white, space-suit-like protective clothing and gas masks with respirators. All team members were vaccinated. "It was like a moon landing," one official said. "Only scarier."
Scientists said much can be learned from the material.
Dr. William C. Patrick III, who made germ weapons for the United States before President Richard M. Nixon outlawed them nearly three decades ago, said the samples would enable scientists to determine not only the strength of the Soviet strain, or strains, but also whether the anthrax had been genetically engineered, or enhanced in other ways for virulence or other desirable qualities. Neither Patrick nor any officials directly involved in the missions would discuss what the samples had shown. But several experts confirmed that the tests indicated that the anthrax vaccine now being given American soldiers was effective. Molecular testing on the strains was continuing, they added.
Mustafoev said Uzbek's national oil company, which is exploring for oil on its part of the island, was not drilling close to the buried anthrax. "No amount of oil is worth risking human lives," he said.
Though Uzbekistan is deeply concerned about the potential danger, decontaminating the island, given its size and the amount of anthrax buried here, would be prohibitively expensive, he and American officials agreed. But Kazakhstan has asked Washington's help in surveying the Renaissance area to assess contamination levels, which the Clinton administration is encouraging Uzbek and Kazakh officials to work jointly on with American experts. Meanwhile, all three capitals have been quietly pressing Moscow to provide more information about what happened here.
Milton Leitenberg, a professor and expert on Russia's unconventional weapons programs, said that Moscow in 1987 had listed the town of Aralsk, the island's staging area, but not the island itself, in its first declaration of germ weapons related-sites which is required by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention banning germ warfare. In its 1992 declaration, Russia finally listed the island, but as a site where only defensive testing for vaccines and materials had been performed. "The Russians," he concludes, "have never come clean about these programs."
The Neighbors: The Poor and Sick Could Get Even Sicker
The people who live near the island know all too well how little Moscow cared for their safety and welfare. No region of Uzbekistan has been harder hit by the Soviet Union's economic policies or its relentless pursuit of unconventional weapons than Karakalpakstan, the Uzbek semi-autonomous republic inhabited by almost 5 million people with their own distinct ethnic traditions, language and culture. Karakalpakstan, the home of the Aral sea, has seen its once thriving fishing industry devastated, its arable land ruined by overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and its ground water polluted.
Yusup S. Kamalov, an Uzbek scientist who heads the Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea, an independent environmental group, called the situation "next to hopeless." The sea's surface water has shrunk by half, its volume reduced by 75 percent. "The sea is dying," he said.
Karakalpaks, said Ian Small, the country manager of Medecins Sans Frontieres, the volunteer physicians group, are among the most "chronically sick people in the former Soviet Union." Ninety-eight percent of pregnant women are anemic. Infant mortality rates are comparable to that of sub-Saharan Africa. Two-thirds of the population suffer from some chronic illness, often tuberculosis.
"We've seen an alarming increase in kidney disease and various cancers," he said. "But because there has been no census since 1989 and health statistics are either nonexistent or unreliable, it's impossible to know whether what we're seeing is the result of the region's general poverty and environmental degradation or the past chemical and biological testing."
While local and Uzbek officials try to provide decent health care, he said, they and his small group, the only international charity in the region, are overwhelmed. Medecins is beginning to conduct a base-line health survey that may shed some light not just on the incidence of diseases, but their causes.
Most germ weapons scientists familiar with Vozrozhdeniye said there was little immediate danger to the local population. But with the continued shrinking of the sea, the island is becoming more readily accessible. In some of the pits, anthrax sludge is beginning to leach up through the sand, said one recent visitor here.
Although Uzbek officials have kept Renaissance Island closed, local inhabitants will inevitably come in contact with the still deadly bacteria once it is linked to the mainland. "We're now totally in the dark," Small said. "It's scary not to know what we're dealing with."