- We always assumed that the end would
come with a big bang. We should be so lucky. The Apocalypse is likely to
be more mediaeval than modern and the terrible pestilence its horsemen
may unleash is quietly biding its time in the great power's military laboratories.
- ``That's just dangerous bunk,'' says
Professor Donald Henderson, who directed WHO's global smallpox eradication
- Professor Henderson, who is also professor
of epidemiology and director of the Centre for Civilian Biodefence Studies
at John Hopkins University, said, ``We don't need to research smallpox
any further, no one has been asking to do it for years, so why look for
a smallpox treatment anyway if it's going to be abolished? You couldn't
test the treatment anyway, because only humans get smallpox, therefore,
the proof of the work could only come from unethical experiments. But far,
far worse, the decision to keep this dreadful scourge can only herald the
opening shots in a new biological arms race. We are all going to be deeply
sorry about that.''
- Dr Brian Mahy, keeper of the remaining
American smallpox store at CDC in Atlanta, agrees with Professor Henderson.
``Personally, I think we should destroy the stocks, although we do need
to be prepared for a terrorist attack using the virus. We can do that by
building up the vaccine stocks. The only real worry I have is that vaccinia
is not effective in immuno-compromised and HIV-positive people.''
- However, what remains constantly unspoken
in the decision to keep the scourge is the continuing mistrust of the Russians.
The record shows this is justified.
- The Soviets and then the Russians have
lied, cheated and deceived about their smallpox holdings and their intentions
to use them as strategic weapons.
- In 1972, the United States and Britain
decided to terminate all offensive work on biological weapons. The Soviets
agreed and the Biological Weapons Convention was signed, banning ``the
development, production, stockpiling or acquisition of microbial or other
biological agents in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic
protective or other peaceful purposes''.
- While the United States and Britain destroyed
their entire biological warfare infrastructure and throttled down all work
to small defensive research programs, the Kremlin thought it was Christmas.
- The Soviets began cheating from day one
and started a unilateral arms race to develop the most potent and awesome
strategic capabilities using smallpox, anthrax and the Plague as their
weapons of choice. Quickly, deliberately and secretly, we now know they
created warheads filled with specially treated and antibiotic resistant
strains of these apocalyptic weapons and fitted them on to long-range inter-continental
ballistic missiles. The targets included London, Washington, New York,
Los Angeles, and Seattle. Had these weapons been used, they would have
blasted the world straight back to the Middle Ages.
- With smallpox, the Soviets were particularly
dangerous and devious. Ken Alibek, who for four years was the deputy chief
of Russia's covert biological warfare program before defecting to the West,
has revealed that Moscow proposed in 1958 that WHO sponsor a campaign to
rid the world of smallpox. But after WHO announced success 22 years later,
the Soviet Union immediately included smallpox in a list of viral and bacterial
plague weapons targeted for improvement in a special 1981-85 five-year
plan. ``Where other governments saw a medical victory, the Kremlin perceived
a military opportunity,'' Alibek recalls. The truth is, the whole world
would have been totally vulnerable to smallpox, with vaccination having
long ceased, and immunity even in those vaccinated, long expired.
- Further, Alibek has confirmed what Western
intelligence suspected - that since 1947, the Soviet military had focused
its attention, specifically, on smallpox as the most effective viral weapon.
- Indeed, in 1959, KGB officers in India
obtained several samples of a highly virulent and rapidly infectious strain
of smallpox, which after several years of careful development and testing
became the main Soviet ``battle-strain'' of the virus. It was even code-named
India-1. The Soviets went on to produce 20 tonnes of it each year (the
virus, unfrozen, had a one-year shelf life) and stored this cornucopia
of death at a secret laboratory in the Army's Virological Centre at Zagorsk.
- But not content with this overflowing
deadly biological arsenal, the Soviet Union's key military plague warriors
ordered their scientists in 1987 to develop an even more virulent smallpox
strain. So a large smallpox reactor was built inside the Government's smallpox
research centre at Vector laboratories in Koltsovo in Siberia. The new
strain was successfully midwifed here and tested inside Vector's unique
explosive chamber in December 1990 - just one month before British and
American arms control inspectors visited the site to be blandly reassured
that no such work was ever contemplated.
- Even the collapse of the Soviet Union
did nothing to terminate the multi-million-dollar offensive program in
the new Russia. Gorbachev had previously signed off on a new five-year
biological warfare plan, which actually increased funding by more than
$1billion. And even after Western intelligence had begun to unravel the
Russian's darker secrets, Yeltsin and his reformers were unable to stop
the program. Intense pressure from Margaret Thatcher, John Major and George
Bush initially seemed to yield results. By January 1992, Yeltsin had quietly
sent a letter to Washington and London promising no one would stand in
the way of removing the old biological weapons program Russia had inherited
from the Soviet Union; he also admitted there had been serious treaty violations.
That would now stop.
- On 20 January, during preparations for
the first Yeltsin-Major summit, the British Foreign Secretary, Mr Douglas
Hurd, held the West's first face-to-face discussion with Yeltsin about
these assurances to end illegal biological warfare work. A grim Russian
leader told Hurd that he had been deceived by Gorbachev who had lied about
the extent of the plague wars program, and Yeltsin confided that the program
was still continuing in secret. A Western intelligence officer who had
access to the notes of this meeting discovered that Yeltsin had referred
to the men still in charge of this program as ``fanatics''. He promised
to speedily retire and demote these men.
- But then, and to this day, one of the
top ``fanatics'' remains firmly in place. Major-General Yuriy Tikhonovich
Kalinin is an old, reconstructed Stalinist. He started his career in offensive
biological warfare as director of the All Union Scientific Research Institute
of Biological Instrumentation, a part of a huge empire known as ``Biopreparat''.
Biopreparat, ostensibly a civilian organisation to research and develop
drugs for commercial application, actually hides in its voluminous folds
a dedicated, secret military program for offensive biological weaponry.
General Kalinin has never been far from its centre. By the early 1980s,
the under-qualified but malleable officer became director of Biopreparat.
An agile leaper from one political rolling log to another, he has survived
even his ardent support for the arch-conservatives who tried to overthrow
Gorbachev in 1991. He was, and remains, in post, and is a ferocious proponent
of Russia's offensive biological warfare program. He is also one of Russia's
invisible and largely unavailable men. When we asked him for an interview,
he faxed back: ``We are all very busy, try again next year.''
- THE flight from Moscow to Novosibirsk,
if you are lucky, is in an old but semi-comfortable DC10. This huge industrial
city, set thousands of kilometres deep in Siberia became the Soviet Union's
chief aircraft manufacturing base, moved east to avoid being overrun by
the Nazis in 1942. We are met in the bitterly cold and unlit airport hangar
at the airport by Evgeny Starkov from the State Research Centre of Virology
and Biotechnology in nearby Koltsovo. The huge laboratory, known as Vector,
is where the Russians keep their smallpox stocks. General Kalinin has already
forbidden us to enter Vector, but a trip to the site might be helpful,
and, anyway, we have been promised a meeting with Dr Lev Sandakhchiev,
the head of Vector, and, as one might expect for a man who has General
Kalinin as his boss, also a passionate advocate for the retention of Russia's
- We meet Dr Lev Sandakhchiev at the House
of Scientists just outside Novosibirsk. He escorts us courteously into
a small dining room for selected guests. Dr Sandakhchiev is a small attractive
man, his nut-brown face has distinct Asiatic features, with a straight
but slightly squashed nose, black hair going grey and a smart suit with
academically acceptable scruffy shoes. He is personable, and semi-Westernised,
yet Cold War phobias stick to him like cling film. He does not believe
that the US and Britain destroyed their offensive biological weapons; he
does believe the Americans could remobilise their smallpox stocks within
a few weeks; he remains suspicious and unconvinced. General Kalinin's spirit
hangs over the meal like a Dartmoor mist.
- ``Our smallpox work is very important,
the virus has been insufficiently researched. Smallpox has not been destroyed
in the world and it would be a mistake for us to destroy it now. There
may be illegal stocks somewhere, who knows? I have no confidence, the secret
services may know."
- ``Here at Vector we have 300-400 strains
of smallpox, they are all different, we must do more research. Listen my
friend, there could still be a problem with re-infection from bodies in
- In the district of Yakutia, north-east
of Novosibirsk, there were 80 outbreaks of natural smallpox in the 1850s,
he says. The bodies were buried in unmarked graves and pits. ``Rivers change
their course. The water can plough up the old bodies, global warming has
thinned the permafrost. Man's search for raw materials is disturbing the
ground and turning up the bodies. Smallpox could return from the last century
and re-infect us. Where would we be then without stocks for research?''
- To this, Dr Henderson, replies, ``Nonsense.
``While I agree the virus can survive in the ground for hundreds of years,
and could, theoretically, reinfect anyone foolish enough to get very close
to a petrified corpse, the result would simply be a small local infection
of smallpox which could easily be contained by vaccinating the area immediately.
That scenario is no reason for keeping smallpox on this planet.''
- ``Ah, Dr Henderson,'' sighs Dr Sandakhchiev,
``He is too old in the soul, I do not agree with him, the destruction of
smallpox was his life-time's achievement, that's the only reason he wants
to go ahead with it.''
- But Professor Henderson is insistent.
The Sandakhchiev scenario belongs to Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park,
- We gingerly ask about the covert smallpox
programs. ``We are not producing smallpox weapons at Vector,'' says Dr
Sandakhchiev. ``I agree that historically our breach (of the BWC) was serious,
but that's over. Now there are no funds for that kind of thing. I find
the allegations offensive, we must let bygones be bygones.''
- So what exactly is Vector doing with
its smallpox now?
- ``I'm afraid I'm not allowed to tell
you, it's nothing militarily offensive, it's defensive military work.''
- Even if that is the whole truth, it implies
that the Russians certainly believe a smallpox arms race has really begun,
with both Moscow and Washington equally culpable.
- We still cannot gain access to Vector.
We stand outside and look at its grey and miserable exterior. Scrawny silver
birches are nearby, looking tired and stunted in the snow-packed earth.
- Security at this most sensitive of sites
seems poor. There was an electrified fence but it has long since gone,
and there are no armed guards outside. Perhaps security is tighter on the
inside, but we have since taken the precaution of inserting a willing researcher
into the laboratories. Parts of his report does not inspire confidence:
- ``There are monkeys inside the laboratories.
I'm told they are not being used for smallpox research. The animals live
in solitary confinement in tiny cages and the keeper told me their diet
lacked key vitamins because of a shortage of funds. They look healthy,
but the place really stinks and is in bad repair.
- ``Current security at Vector is not lax,
but is clearly not sufficient. There is restricted access and documents
are needed, but the only guards I saw were unarmed janitors. Security is
- Washington does have further justification
for its fears that Vector's smallpox supply has already, or could soon,
haemorrhage beyond Siberia. We spoke to the widow of an employee, herself
a doctor who works at Vector. She had not been paid for three months. She
survived, she said, as did so many workers there, by barter, friendship
and credit in the shops. It is situations like this that could easily encourage
the illicit sale of smallpox virus to a terrorist group or a rogue state.
Islamic Jihad recently boasted that it had biological weapons and was ready
to use them. It is also an uncomfortable truth that to this day, no Western
arms control inspectors have ever been allowed into any of Russia's military
biological warfare facilities.
- RECENTLY, 1000 public health leaders
from North America attended a special war-game scenario involving the use
of smallpox. The day-long exercise was supervised by experts from the Centre
for Civilian Biodefence Studies at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.
- The scenario involved a visit by the
American vice-president to a north-eastern university. Eleven days later,
a student becomes sick with flu-like symptoms, high fever, muscle ache
and a headache. She is sent home with an aspirin.
- Two days later, the student returns,
now fighting for her life. The university janitor has fallen ill too, again
with similar symptoms. The university specialist diagnoses smallpox, a
plague which spreads like wildfire through the air. An investigation subsequently
shows that someone managed to gain access to the smallpox stores in the
US and use them in an attempt to assassinate the vice-president. Eight
weeks later, 15,000 people have smallpox.
- Travellers soon spread the disease to
14 nations, all global vaccine supplies quickly ran out, borders everywhere
were slammed shut, riots broke out, in the affected cities in the US, martial
law was declared and a hesitant National Guard called out to patrol the
streets. Quietly, at night and according to a well-rehearsed emergency
procedure, health officials and police began preparing lime pits in pre-selected
- The virus spreads exponentially and,
within a year, the war game's computers offer up 80 million dead.
- ``We blew it,'' said Dr Michael Ascher,
a Californian Health official who was involved in the scenario, ``It clearly
got out of control. Whatever planning we had, it didn't work. I think this
is the harsh reality of what would happen.''
- The ultimate argument for burning the
remaining stocks of smallpox, says Dr Henderson, isn't just based on the
science and the morality. It is based on logic and weapons philosophy.
Under the brutal rules of the Cold War stand-off, a philosophy of MAD (mutually
assured destruction) prevailed. This was essentially a guarantee by the
superpowers that even if attacked first, by surprise, they could always
guarantee a devastating nuclear counter-strike, a response that would paralyse
- But this, argues Professor Henderson,
would not apply to the use of biological weapons, partly because we still
have nuclear bombs, and partly because the use of smallpox is morally more
unacceptable than the use of targeted nuclear weapons. A strategic exchange
of biological weapons, not only smallpox, but the rest of the pestilential
armory, would, in effect, end civilisation and return man to the cave.
- Those scientists, and there are many,
who believe in the retention of the smallpox virus for altruistic purposes
have suddenly found themselves pushing at open doors to the White House
- But, at the very time that war has again
broken out in Europe, and old superpower tensions are revived, there does
seem less and less justification for leaving those freezers in Atlanta
and Koltsovo switched on.
- Tom Mangold is senior correspondent for
BBC-TV's Panorama. Jeff Goldberg is a freelance journalist and TV producer.
Their book Plague Wars will be published by Macmillan in September.
- THE SPECTRE OF SMALLPOX
- Smallpox is a highly contagious infection
that killed an estimated 500 million people in this century before it was
eradicated through a global vaccination campaign. For the past decade,
a debate has raged over what to do with laboratory samples of the deadly
variola virus, which causes the disease.
- WHO HAS THE LAST TRACES?
- Under a WHO resolution, existing stocks
of the virus are to be kept in the laboratories where they are currently
stored, in Atlanta and Siberia, "up to but not later than 2002".
A committee of scientific experts is to oversee smallpox research and will
periodically inspect the laboratories to assure that the virus is kept
- THE THREAT OF OUTBREAK
- There is no treatment for smallpox, which
kills up to 30 per cent of its victims. Most of the world's population
has no immunity to the infection, and health officials say existing vaccine
stocks are inadequate to stop an outbreak of the disease.
- BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS THREAT?
- No country except the United States and
Russia has acknowledged having samples of the smallpox virus. However,
some intelligence experts fear samples may have been secretly obtained
by some other countries, particularly North Korea and Iran and perhaps
Libya and Syria.
- Donna Shalala, the US Secretary of Health
and Human Services, who led the US delegation at the assembly, said that
the threat of bioterrorism, which was "obscure" only a few years
ago, had emerged as one of "the thorniest problems of the post-Cold
- Lev Sandakhchiev, the director of Russia's
State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology, known as Vector, where
smallpox strains are stored, says he is certain North Korea, among other
states, is secretly keeping smallpox stocks.
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