August 31, 2013 - In 1992, Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov,Â a biologist fromÂ the Soviet Union, boarded a flight in Almaty, then Kazakhstanâ€™s capital, for New York. When Dr. Alibekovâ€”now known as Ken Alibekâ€”sat down with the CIA, he had a terrifying secret to reveal: that bio weapons program the Soviet Union
stopped in the 1980â€˛s hadnâ€™t actually stopped at all. He knew this because he had led Moscowâ€™s efforts to develop weapons-grade anthrax.Â In fact, he said, by 1989â€”around the time that Western leaders were urging the USSR to halt its secret bioweapons program, known as Biopreparatâ€”the Soviet program had dwarfed the USâ€™s by many orders of magnitude. (This is disregardingÂ the possibility that the US was also developingÂ some of these weapons in secret, and, like Russia, still is.)
One big problem, he added, was that, like the stockpiles of nuclear weapons left in the dust of the Soviet Union, the materials and the expertise needed to make a bioweaponâ€”anthrax, smallpox, cholera, plague, hemorrhagic fevers, and so onâ€”could still be lying about, for sale to the highestÂ bidder. Of those scientists, AlibekÂ told the Times in 1998, â€ťWe have lost control of them.â€ť
Today, biologists who worked in the former Soviet Unionâ€”like those whoÂ respondedÂ to a case of the plague across the border in KyrgyzstanÂ this weekâ€”are likely to brush Alibekâ€™s fears aside.Â But theyâ€™ll also tell you that the fall of the Soviet UnionÂ devastated their profession, leaving some once prominent scientists in places like Almaty
scrambling for new work. ThatÂ sense of desperation, underlined by Alibekâ€™s defection to the US, has helped pump hundreds of millions of dollars intoÂ aÂ Pentagon program to secureÂ notÂ justÂ nuclearÂ materialsÂ but chemical and biological ones, in a process by which Washington became, in essence, their highest bidder.
This explains the hulking concrete structureÂ I recently visited at a construction site onÂ the outskirts of Almaty. Set behind trees and concrete and barbed-wire, Kazakhstanâ€™s new Central Reference Laboratory will partly replace the agingÂ buildings nearby where the USSR kept some of its finest potential bioweaponsâ€”and where scientists studyÂ those powerful pathogens today. When it opens in September 2015, theÂ $102-million projectÂ laboratory is meant to serve as aÂ Central Asian way station for a global war on dangerous disease. And as a project under that Pentagon program, theÂ Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the labÂ will beÂ built, and some of its early operation funded, by American taxpayers.
The far-flung biological threat
reduction labÂ may look like a strange idea at a time of various sequester outbreaks, but officialsÂ say itâ€™s an important anti-terror investment, a much-neededÂ upgrade to a facility that has been described as an aging, un-secure relic of the 1950â€˛s, and one that the Defense Dept. fears canâ€™t keep pace in an era of WMD.
Itâ€™s also an investment, they add, in a country where scientists are hungry for more international participation and better facilitiesâ€”and where the U.S. is keen to keep sensitiveÂ materials and knowledge in the right hands and brains.
â€śYou cannot erase this knowledge from someoneâ€™s mind,â€ť said Lt. Col. Charles Carlton, director of the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency
office in Kazakhstan. The threat ofÂ scientists going rogue,Â he said, is â€śa serious concern.â€ť â€śWeâ€™re doing our best to employ these people. Our hope is that through gainful employment they wonâ€™t be drawn down other avenues.â€ť
There is no hard evidence that bioweapons were pilfered and sold during the 1990s, but Alibek has said thatÂ â€ťthere are many non-official stocks of smallpox virus,â€ť a virus that was officially eradicated in 1980.Â Western intelligence agencies also estimate thatÂ North Korea and RussiaÂ currently have the capacity to deploy smallpox as a weapon of mass destruction.Â (Itâ€™s worth remembering howeverÂ thatÂ fears in the run-up to the Iraq warÂ about Saddam Hussein getting smallpox from Soviet scientists were unfounded,Â Â despite widely publicizedÂ reports byÂ Judy MillerÂ and others.)Â Other countries suspected of having inadvertently or deliberately retained specimens of the virus include China, Cuba, India, Iran, Israel andÂ Pakistan.
Bakyt B. Atshabar, head ofÂ the 60-year-oldÂ institute that will run theÂ newÂ lab,Â theÂ KazakhÂ Scientific Center of Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases, isÂ keenly aware of the dangers of weapons development: his father helped diagnose the effects of weapons tests on thousands of people who lived near the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, in the north of the country.
But to him and other biologists in Almaty, the lab is less about defense strategyÂ and more about developing scientific expertise.Â Currently the KSCQZDÂ is focused on studying and preventing potentially lethal contagion, like the case of theÂ teenager across the southern border inÂ Kyrgyzstan, who died last week from bubonic plagueÂ after eating a barbecued marmot (he was likely bitten by a flea, doctors said).
Dr. Bakyt B. Atshabar, head of the institute that will manage the Central Reference Lab
â€śWeâ€™re looking forward to this becoming a regional training facility focused both on human and animal infections,â€ť he said. â€śCholera is also one of the major problems in our region, mostly with our numerous southern neighbors.â€ť He also cited an incidentÂ in July in which Kazakh tourists returned from a trip in Southeast Asia with dengue fever.
Increased trade with its eastern neighbor China also threatens to increase the transmission of disease. â€śAlong with the construction of pipelines,â€ť he said, â€ścome rodents and fleas.â€ť
Meanwhile, the countryâ€™s meager opposition has called the lab a risk to the citizens of Almaty; the city sits in an active seismic zone, and the lab lies just outside town, and not far from a populated suburban neighborhood. Officials have countered that the building isÂ designed to meet the cityâ€™s highest seismic standards, and will replace what a 2011 USÂ embassy statement said wereÂ â€ťolder buildings at the institute that are not built to withstand such tremors.â€ť
â€śI would say this could take just about anything,â€ť Dan Erbach,Â an engineer from AECOM, the contractor overseeing the project, said during a tour of the site, which is currently a set of bulking concrete stacked three andÂ four stories high, setÂ atop a remediated field. â€śThereâ€™s more than twice as much strength in this building than any other building in the city.â€ť (The buildingâ€™s seismic standard was the result of an intervention by theÂ government, which placed newÂ requirements on the project before construction began in 2011. That pushed the initial completion date back a year to September 2015.)
From a security and safety perspective, the new labÂ represents a giant leap. When documentarian Simon Reeve visited the existing facility in 2006, he saw Soviet-era buildings and security measures not likely to intimidate a determined terroristâ€”or a scientistâ€”from sneaking some anthrax or plague out into the wild. Small locks on fridges were all that kept deadly vials from a fast escape.
From â€śMeet the Stansâ€ť by Simon Reeve
â€śWeâ€™re not that far from places where terrorists groups are living relatively openly,â€ť Reeve said.Â â€ťThey would love to break in here, they would love to get hold of this stuff.â€ť
Breaches of security and competance have been a problem at U.S. biodefenseÂ labs for decades. Texas is a particular hotspot. In 2002, a renowned professor at Texas Tech was alleged to have lied about thirty vials of plague that went missing at his lab. In two separate incidents at Texas A&M in 2006, university officials failed to tell the Center for Disease Control after biodefenseÂ researchers were infected withÂ brucella and Q fever, which has been researched as a weapon.Â In March, when a sample of Guanarito, a Venezualan virus,Â went missing at the Gavalston National Laboratory, officials cautiously blamed the apparently missing amount on a clerical error, but the incident is under investigation by the FBI.
lab will be outfitted with safety features likeÂ double-door access zonesÂ and special containment hoods, enough toÂ qualify it under U.S. Centers for Disease ControlÂ standards as a level 3 biosafety lab, or BSL-3 (the highest level is BSL-4).Â Only a fraction of the labÂ will be dedicated to lethal dieases and certified at BSL-3; most of the other labs at the 87,000 square foot building will be BSL-2, for the non-lethal variety.
But plague is already a focus of work at the existing lab in AlmatyÂ because it occurs naturally in nearly 40 percent of the country. (TheÂ KSCQZDÂ began life in 1949 as theÂ Central Asian Anti-Plague Scientific Research Institute.)Â Though itâ€™s often spread by fleas, depending on lung infectionsÂ or sanitary conditions, it also can be spread in the air, through direct contact, or by contaminated undercooked food.Â Until June 2007, plague was one of the three epidemic diseases required to be reported to the World Health Organization, along withÂ cholera and yellow fever. The case in Kyrgystan last week underscored the regional danger of itsÂ spread among humans; there are about 3,000 cases per year.
â€śWe will evaluate the scale of contacts, likely natural carriers of the disease,Â such as rivers,â€ť Zhandarbek Bekshin, an official at Kazakhstanâ€™s Ministry of Health, said. No border crossings have been closed, local media reported, but over one hundred people who came into contact with the teenagerÂ were hospitalized.
Climate change is also a concern at the lab. Because climate effects how plague spreads, studying the disease â€ścan also be used as an indicator of changes to the natural environment,â€ť Dr.Â Atshabar said.
For the US, however, the project is rooted in global security, and fits with its now decades-long collaboration with Kazakhstan
in controlling weapons of mass destruction. In 1991 President Nazerbayev oversaw the dismantling and return to Russia of its nuclear weapons. But the country still maintains a store of pathogens that were once cherished by the Soviet military.
The secret Biopreparat program came into sharp focus in 2001, when a former Soviet official explained to a Moscow newspaper the suspected basis of an outbreak of smallpox that sickened ten people and killed three in a community on theÂ AralÂ Sea:Â they were the accidental victims of a Soviet military field test at aÂ bioweaponsÂ facility based on a nearby island, he said.
Because some of those sickened had already been vaccinated against smallpox, the incidentÂ raised questions about the ability of vaccines to protect against state-designedÂ bioweapons.
With another smaller lab at a military base in the town of Otar,Â in western KazakhstanÂ on theÂ Caspian Sea, and a flurry of similar projects in the worksâ€”in Russia, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijanâ€”the PentagonÂ hopes itsÂ Defense Threat Reduction AgencyÂ can also establish a regional early warning system for infections and outbreaks. (As the U.S. weighed responses to Syriaâ€™s use of chemical weapons this week,Â DTRA announced more grants for research into sensing and tracking WMD.)
Is it possible, as some Russian criticsÂ have alleged, that labs like this could serve asÂ brain trusts and storehouses for weapons research, for eitherÂ the US or their home countries? â€śRussia sees this asâ€¦Â a powerful offensive potential,â€ť Gennady Onishchenko, theÂ Chief Sanitary Inspector of Russiaâ€”a kind of Surgeon Generalâ€”told reporters in July.
Washington denies that theseÂ reference labs and the secret research at the historic home of American bioweapons, at the US Army base at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have anything to do with offensive weapons, that theyÂ meet the standards ofÂ theÂ 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons
Convention (BWC), and that their work will eventually be made public.
Funding for theÂ $103 million construction project in Kazakhstan, andÂ much of the labâ€™sÂ operations in its early years, will come from the Dept. of Defense, which envisions it as playing a central role in monitoring pathogen outbreaks, a strategy that receivedÂ new funding after the anthrax attacks in 2001. Last year, the White House announced a program that consolidated these efforts under the banner ofÂ â€ťbiosurveillance.â€ť
â€śDODâ€™s involvement inÂ biosurveillanceÂ goes back probably before DOD to the Revolutionary War,â€ť Andrew C. Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, toldÂ American Forces Press ServiceÂ last year.Â â€śWe didnâ€™t call itÂ biosurveillanceÂ then, but monitoring and understanding infectious disease has always been our priority, because for much of our history, weâ€™ve been a global force.â€ť
As the former director of the two-decade oldÂ Nunn-LugarÂ Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (or â€śNunn-Lugarâ€ťÂ for short),Â Weber hasÂ paid special attention toÂ Central Asia. After he spent much of the 1990sÂ helping the U.S. remove weapons-grade uranium from the former Soviet Union
under Nunn-Lugar, heÂ was instrumental in creating Central Reference LaboratoriesÂ in Almaty
and elsewhere in the region.
An English-language editorial in Pravda in July referenced Weberâ€™s role as something that should â€śpromp[t]Â serious reflection.â€ťÂ Responding to aÂ US State Department report that Russia was possibly pursuing bioweapons research, the Foreign Ministry in MoscowÂ noted that it â€śgivesÂ impression that the US, despite the changes occurring in the world, still remains in the grip of cold war propaganda.â€ť
Kazakh officials meanwhile underscored that the lab, which operates under Kazakhstanâ€™s Ministry of Health, was not connected to Soviet defense research. But historically, scientists at the USSRâ€™s anti-plague institutesâ€”including the one that will run the new Almaty
labâ€”were also involved in a secret projectÂ to designÂ vaccines for pathogens that had been modified by theÂ military programÂ that Dr. Alibek, the defector, once ran.
On the sunny day earlier this month when we visited the site, however, the conversation was focused onÂ savingÂ lives through cooperation, not the opposite. The hope is that labs like this will simply encourage more international scientificÂ relationships, the kind that buildÂ cultural trust, and the kind upon which science thrives.
Despite â€śtypical intergovernmental issues,â€ťÂ Carlton and other officials expressed optimismÂ aboutÂ the collaboration. â€śI never like to refer to this as the former Soviet Union. ThatÂ was in theÂ past. In the military, itâ€™s beenÂ a seaÂ change in our mentality.
has come so far in terms of government organization, and understanding the threat and the problem,â€ť he added. â€śThis is a country that willingly said, we want to get rid of this threat and take the lead.Â Kazakhstan
has opened up as an exemplar around the world.â€ť
This story was reported as part of an International Reporting Project fellowship. It was republished with permission from Motherboard. Follow Alex Pasternack on Twitter
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