Plague Wars - Keeping The
Apocalypse On Ice
By Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg
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 program.
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 smallpox stocks.
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 the permafrost.''
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, he says.
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 demonstrably under-equipped.''
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 areas.
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 the aggressor.
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 and Kremlin.
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.
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.
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 strictly contained.
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.
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 War era."
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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