- In the notorious Building No. 1 in Obolensk, Russia,
where Soviet scientists manipulated viruses and bacteria to concoct the
most deadly of modern plagues, a lab technician recently tested cultures
rather than germs. The Clinton administration, in a gamble, is financing
the new research. OBOLENSK, Russia - At this sprawling, rundown research
complex where Soviet scientists once secretly worked to turn plague, tularemia,
glanders and anthrax into weapons, the Clinton administration is taking
what many consider a perilous gamble.
- The administration has been financing research here and
at other institutes throughout the former Soviet Union by scientists who
only a decade ago manipulated genes to make deadly viruses and bacteria
even hardier and resistant to vaccines and antibiotics.
- Since 1994, the United States government has spent $20
million helping some 2,200 scientists at 30 institutes in the former Soviet
Union turn their deadly skills to public health and other peaceful research.
Administration officials say this money -- which, according to the General
Accounting Office may increase to $270 million by 2005 -- is also intended
to prevent the Soviet scientists from selling their expertise to Iran,
Iraq, and other "rogue" states or terrorist groups trying to
acquire germ weapons.
- Until recently, most of the support came from the Departments
of State, Defense, and Energy. But prompted by the threats of bioterrorism
and naturally emerging diseases to American health and the nation's food
supply, the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and
others have now joined the campaign.
- Among the most intriguing newcomers is the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, the military group that helped invent
the Internet and which is known for supporting avant-garde research. Darpa
has cautiously and quietly allocated more than $3 million since 1998 for
work, including some here at Obolensk, that in many ways resembles research
that was once the source of America's greatest fears.
- The administration knows that this assistance could help
Russia continue developing germ weapons, if, as some suspect, research
continues at its four still-closed military labs. Can the Russians, who
doubled the size of their vast covert germ warfare program after signing
the 1972 treaty banning such weapons, now be trusted?
- "No one really knows," Wendy Orent, an expert
on the former Soviet program, concluded last month in American Prospect,
a liberal magazine.
- But in a report to Congress in January, the Pentagon
concluded that the access gained to Obolensk through such assistance gave
it "high confidence" that neither Obolensk nor Vector, the former
Soviet viral weapons complex in Siberia, was now engaged in activities
related to germ warfare.
- In fact, the administration maintains that the risk of
not helping Russian scientists far outweighs the risk of doing so. Darpa
argues that tapping the knowledge of the Russian scientists, who continued
making ever deadlier germ weapons two decades after President Richard M.
Nixon ended America's program in 1969, will benefit science and strengthen
American national security.
- Still, the risks are obvious here at Obolensk.
- In a way, the place is a monument of sorts to communism's
failure. Many of its 90 buildings are half-built; several labs appear abandoned.
Weeds have replaced the grass shown in photos of the installation in its
- Fifty miles southwest of Moscow but unlisted on Soviet
maps, Obolensk until recently was closed not only to foreigners, but also
to Soviet scientists who were not part of the germ warfare program. Last
month, however, Gen. Nikolai N. Urakov, the institute's long-serving director,
invited an American reporter to attend the first large open scientific
conference Obolensk has ever sponsored.
- The remnants of germ warfare research are still eerily
evident: the heavy metal locks on doors on the third and fourth floors
of Building No. 1, which confined the most deadly of Obolensk's collection
of 2,000 strains of pathogens to air-tight rooms; giant pipes that carried
breathable air to scientists in contaminated areas, emergency telephones,
fire extinguishers, alarms and even the space suits on display at the building's
- While such suits are still worn on the third floor where
scientists still study the most dangerous agents, Russia says that these
labs are now dedicated to preventing and curing disease.
- American scientists with proper vaccinations have been
permitted to visit the "hot" labs in Building 1, the nine-story,
glass-and-metal heart of this vast complex.
- Aid from the United States, much of it channeled through
a multinational group known as the International Science and Technology
Center, now pays roughly half of the institute's costs.
- Obolensk now employs 1,125 scientists and technicians,
about half its peak size.
- With $3.45 million in grants from the multinational group,
Obolensk has become the second largest recipient of American biological
aid after Vector. Andy Weber, a special adviser to the Pentagon's Office
of Threat Reduction, told conferees last month that aid to Obolensk rose
sharply in 1997 after General Urakov rejected Iranian overtures to share
his center's biological expertise with Tehran.
- Still, few officials deny the potential danger in American
financing of Obolensk's most advanced work. Consider Darpa's $175,000,
two-year grant to Igor V. Abaev, a senior researcher and weapons program
veteran. His goal is to isolate and compare genomes of Burkholderia, which
causes glanders, an inflammatory disease that strikes horses, mules and
other animals and sometimes people.
- There is no human vaccine to prevent glanders, and once
contracted, the disease is not always curable.
- Dr. Abaev combines single strands of DNA from two different
types of Burkholderia. The DNA parts that are identical, or extremely similar
in both strands, then form a double strand with each other. The parts that
do not pair up, or pair up poorly, are unique to those species. This process,
called subtractive hybridization, enables scientists to identify, and later
to clone the fragments that differentiate the two species. This, in turn,
produces diagnostic markers that could lead to vaccines designed to emphasize
- "As weapons, such organisms represent a serious
potential biological threat," said Stephen S. Morse, program manager
in Darpa's defense sciences office. "But because these two species
primarily affected horses, American scientists stopped working on them
decades ago. As a result, we now know all too little about them."
- Only a month ago, he noted, a scientist at the Army's
research lab at Fort Detrick, Md., who was trying to develop a glanders
vaccine accidentally contracted the disease.
- Officials in Washington are still trying to determine
- Dr. Abaev enthusiastically displayed the new equipment
that the American grant had enabled him to buy, including a hybridization
chamber, which allows him to mix the DNA fragments. Though such machines
are standard in the United States, they remain rare in cash-strapped Russia.
- Another joint project generating excitement and concern
is a $500,000 grant from the International Science and Technology Center
to a collaboration that includes Nikolai A. Staritsin, an expert on anthrax,
the former Soviet Union's germ weapon of choice, and American researchers
at the Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, and at Los Alamos National
- The scientists are using DNA fingerprinting, molecular
typing, plasmid profiling and other modern techniques of molecular epidemiology
to identify anthrax strains by region and to help scientists distinguish
among virulent and nonvirulent strains. They hope to improve their understanding
of what specifically causes anthrax outbreaks.
- Although the United States and Russia have vaccines to
prevent the disease and antibiotics that supposedly cure it, Dr. Staritsin
said much remained unknown about the DNA fragments already examined, including
the reason some genes were latent and others were not.
- While both the United States and Russia made weapons
from anthrax, Ken Alibek, a senior scientist who defected from the Soviet
secret program, argues that Russian scientists have produced anthrax strains
that are hardier and more virulent than those from the United States.
- Scientists from the United States first understood just
how advanced the Russians were in the mid-1990's when Dr. Staritsin and
Andrei Pomerantsev, another Obolensk scientist, reported that they had
transferred genes from Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that normally does
not cause disease in humans, into anthrax, which if untreated, is highly
- Hamsters that were given this new agent did not respond
to Russia's own vaccine against anthrax. This news caused furious debate
among Western scientists, who wondered why the Russians were bothering
to create such a strain, and deep anxiety over whether the United States'
own vaccine would be able to block the new Russian creation. Washington
has been eager to obtain a sample of the strain ever since.
- Dr. Staritsin insisted in an interview that he and his
colleagues had not tried to develop a modified disease impervious to anyone's
vaccine or antibiotics when they performed the manipulation in 1993.
- They decided to transfer the genes, he said, because
the two organisms were "closely related and often found in soil in
close proximity." They feared that one day the two organisms might
naturally exchange genes without any external intervention. "We wanted
to understand what the result might be," he said.
- In any event, he said, the new strain was too unstable
to be useful in weapons.
- Some will view this work as evidence that Russian scientists
"were trying to make an even nastier weapon," one American said.
"Others will not. How do you gauge intent?"
- Whether Russia is honoring President Boris N. Yeltsin's
1992 pledge to end the secret germ warfare program may never be known.
But in Dr. Staritsin's case, concerns are diminishing, United States officials
say. Shortly before the Obolensk conference, he and a Russian colleague
traveled to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and
to Fort Detrick to give American scientists samples of two rare Russian
strains from Obolensk's collection of 3,000 anthrax strains, believed to
be the world's largest.
- Though the "Tzenkovsky" strains, named for
their late 19th-century Russian inventor, are nonvirulent and hence, usable
only in vaccines, the exchange established the legal and scientific precedents
for future trades of virulent strains, like the genetically modified strain
that American scientists have long coveted. The exchange will probably
occur later this year or early next, Russian and American experts say.
- "They didn't need us to do their research,"
said an American scientist as he sipped one of the endless tiny glasses
of vodka that lined a dinner's banquet table during the conference.
- "They were way ahead of us in many areas despite
their obsolete equipment and bulldozer investigative techniques. So we
have every interest in helping them overcome their past and join the world's
transparent scientific community."
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