Tue, 15 Aug 2000

Kazakh town's bio-weapons past haunts present

By Sujata Rao

STEPNOGORSK, Kazakhstan (Reuters): Forget the atom bomb. Something just as lethal could be brewing in a neighborhood garage -- experts say biological weapons, easy and cheap to make, will be a major menace in the 21st century.

Biowarfare was once the Soviet Union's deadliest secret, and the biological weapons factory near this nondescript town in northern Kazakhstan was the world's biggest.

The site now works on civilian projects. But governments fear the once closely-guarded knowledge has spread, possibly allowing criminals to mount attacks against which the world would be totally defenseless.

"Bio weapons can be called the poor man's atomic bomb," says Andrew Weber, a U.S. Pentagon expert. "To develop and deploy them does not require resources necessary for nuclear devices and the technology is relatively widely available."

And they can be just as deadly. Virulent, genetically engineered germs can mow down millions of people within weeks, bringing back memories of the Black Death which killed a third of Europe's population in the Middle Ages.

"We had the capability to produce within 15 days enough anthrax to wipe out the entire world's population several times over," says Gennady Lepyoshkin, a biologist who once headed the Stepnogorsk plant and now leads joint U.S.-Kazakh efforts to switch it to civilian production.

Created in 1982 as the world's largest bio-weapons factory, Stepnogorsk needed just a coded message from Moscow to start packing spores of the killer disease anthrax into thousands of bombs the size of golf balls to be attached to missile warheads.

This was just part of Moscow's multi-billion dollar biological arms program which succeeded in making weapons out of sinister viruses including plague, anthrax, smallpox and those behind deadly, little known tropical diseases like Ebola.

The plant was established in this remote Kazakh town after a 1979 accident at an anthrax plant in the Urals town of Sverdlovsk -- now Yekaterinburg in Russia -- killed more than 100 civilians and attracted international attention to the project.

In Stepnogorsk, which kept stocks of the viruses at the ready but never actually mass-produced deadly agents, the project was safe from prying foreign eyes.

But the secret was blown in 1992 after Kanatjan Alibekov, another former head of Stepnogorsk, defected to the United States.

His book Biohazard disclosed details of chilling experiments in laboratories across Siberia and Kazakhstan -- so secret not all ministers knew of them. He said the tests even intensified after Moscow signed the 1972 biological and toxin weapons convention.

"Bio-weapons are no longer contained within the bipolar world of the Cold War," Alibekov wrote. "The threat of an attack has increased as the knowledge developed in our labs has spread to rogue regimes and terrorist groups."

The danger is high, not least because most Western doctors cannot recognize the symptoms of diseases such as smallpox, which are considered officially eradicated, and of infections like Ebola which are hardly known to scientists.

The risks have risen with economic decline in the former Soviet Union, meaning scientists are struggling for a living.

One Russian microbiologist in Stepnogorsk for a non- proliferation conference was once contacted by North Korea.

"I threw them out but who knows, someone else may have succumbed," he said. "There were so many of us with the expertise. And our wages are so low it can be tough to resist."

Evidence is everywhere that the best years are past Stepnogorsk.

Heaps of metal clutter the ground. Enterprises producing pharmaceutical and other non-toxic products have replaced weapons development yet they claw desperately for survival and microbiologists receive only US$80 per month.

The population has fallen to 48,000 from 70,000 in Soviet times, and about 500 scientists are estimated to have left.

But there is some hope. The United States Cooperative Threat Reduction Program allotted $172 million to Kazakhstan after it decided in the early 1990s to close its bio-warfare sites and hand its nuclear warheads back to Russia.

The project involved the closure of biowarfare plants and of Semipalatinsk, once the world's largest nuclear testing ground. The last of its 181 underground test tunnels was blown up last month after five years of U.S.-Kazakh efforts.

Now money is allotted each year to help enterprises like Stepnogorsk, the Almaty Plague Institute and Vector in Russia's Novosibirsk which use their knowledge for peaceful purposes.

At Stepnogorsk three enterprises remain in place of the original -- the Institute for Pharmaceutical Microbiology, Progress and Biomedpreparat, which produce commercial drugs. U.S. funds also helped with an ecological monitoring laboratory.

"The immediate aim is to put food on scientists' tables," said Weber, who coordinates the program. "The long term goal is to help them develop self-sustaining enterprises."

That may be tough at the plant, with its huge buildings criss- crossed with pipelines for nutrient media, fermenters, underground storage bunkers with two-meter thick walls and even a helipad for visiting Communist Party bigwigs.

As a result there is bitterness among some scientists.

"We have seen too little money," said Progress head Yuri Rufov. "We gave all we had and didn't get anything in return."

Fears persist that strains of virulent diseases may lurk at biological test sites. Of these, the bleak, deserted Rebirth Island, shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is of most concern because it was used for live animal tests for decades up to 1990.

As the Aral Sea dried up the island grew 10-fold between the 1960s and 1990 and experts say it could reach the mainland by 2010, exposing humans to genetically-engineered strains of plague, anthrax, brucellosis, typhus and smallpox.

Some fear the process has begun thanks to migrating rodents.

"Last year seven cases of plague were reported in south Kazakhstan, an unusually high figure," said Alim Akimbayev, deputy head of Almaty's Anti-Plague Institute.

There are also fears that bio-weapons research may still be continuing in isolated Russian laboratories. Moscow has also preserved its pathogen collection, stored at the Novosibirsk- based Vector.

"We continue to have serious concerns (that) some elements of an offensive bio-weapons program may continue in Russia," Weber said. "There are facilities we have been denied access to."

Vladimir Repin, director at the Vector research laboratory, said his work had been driven by patriotism.

"Having grown up in the Soviet Union we genuinely believed in our work and that it was helping protect our country and people from the bio-weapons program of the United States."