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Prepare for the worst

Prepare for the worst

July 14, 2001 New Scientist by Rachel Nowak

HIGHLIGHT: Is the US wimpish over biological weapons ? Would the world understand a more aggressive stance ? Ken Alibek thinks so. He has a unique perspective. In 1992, he blew the whistle on the Soviet Union's Biopreparat biowarfare machine. The programme was one of the great deceptions of the cold war because the Soviet Union had signed a treaty banning such work. At its height, Biopreparat employed 10,000 scientists at 40 sites. Kanatjan Alibekov (Alibek's birth name) was second-in-command at Biopreparat so his defection made him a fabulous prize for the US. Now he's a key researcher at a major US biodefence contractor. When Rachel Nowak caught up with him, she found a man full of contradictions - and dire warnings

BODY:

Could the foot and mouth outbreak in Britain have been caused by a biological attack ?

I'm 100 per cent sure that all intelligence and counterintelligence services are going to be working on this epidemic. But don't expect to get any official response. Nobody is going to say we suspect it was a case of terrorism or a sabotage of some kind, but we have no proof. If you say this, you create panic, and you encourage other would-be terrorists. Don't expect anything, even any information about the existence of an investigation.

You've accused the West of being alarmingly innocent about the potential threat of biological warfare . . .

Yes. One of the biggest problems is that we don't know whether or not we have had such attacks. We are just ignorant. We cannot distinguish between naturally occurring epidemics and ones we create. I'm not saying that foot and mouth disease is (the result of a biological attack) because I don't know. But if you see something this size in the 21st century, it is getting very suspicious. To imagine that we have had nothing for the past few decades and then suddenly such a huge, uncontrollable epidemic of foot and mouth disease - it raises many questions.

How has the threat of biological warfare changed since the end of the cold war ?

In the 20th century, countries interested in biological weapons mostly developed them as weapons of mass destruction, a means to conduct wars. In the 21st century, we will see a significant shift. Everything is going to be done covertly. In some cases, biological weapons will be used in so-called "low intensity" military conflicts, or they will be used (for terrorism), brought to the US and used to infect people in the subway, for example. You can criticise Putin or Yeltsin, but they are not stupid. They won't deploy biological weapons against Western countries.

So we don't have to worry about Russia . . .

Yes, we do. Russia still retains this huge, sophisticated biological weapons capability and expertise. This is the actual threat: not from the government, but from Russians with the knowledge. Some of them want to sell their expertise and knowledge - there are many buyers. My major concern is that in the event of a bioterrorist attack with well-trained people who know how to deploy biological weapons, the number of casualties would be unbelievably huge.

How huge ?

Depending on the type of agents, deployment techniques, concentration of the agent, from dozens to hundreds of thousands.

What about biological weapons that alter human behaviour rather than kill ?

That is possible. We know about more than one hundred different neuropeptides - for example, beta-endorphin, encephalins and serotonin. There are many that alter our thinking processes, our emotions. You can do practically everything with neurotransmitters. You can make people depressed or overexcited. We need to keep in mind that the idea is not new. Many intelligence services in many countries, especially like the former Soviet Union, use such approaches to interrogate people. They use neurotransmitters to change people's moods, to suppress people's will. You can make a normal person crazy using these types of substances. We know how they work.

But how do you make them into infectious agents that are suitable for use in biological weapons ?

Most neurotransmitters are peptides, each peptide can be encoded by a gene and inserted into a virus, such as an adenovirus. It is not so difficult - you can insert practically anything into a virus. I would say that this work is now well under way in Russia because it started in the 1970s. At that time, genetic engineering techniques were not sophisticated enough to develop something substantial. But it is 2001.

You trained as a doctor, and you seem like a nice person, but you spent a large part of your career developing biological weapons that can kill hundreds of thousands of people. How do you reconcile this ?

It is very difficult to answer that question. We are sitting here in the US, a normal sort of civilised country. But we need to go back to the era of the cold war in 1975. You are a junior lieutenant, and you take not just one oath, but two different oaths. The first is the Hippocratic oath. The second is the oath of a Soviet military officer. In the first, you promise not to cause harm. The second pledge is to protect your country using any means possible. You are told that, first, you are your country's defender, and, second, you are a physician. People in the Soviet Union were not monsters. They were normal people. Loving their wives, their families.

So what went wrong ?

The entire system was an evil system. The country had lost millions and millions of people in different wars. A human life was nothing. What was important was the country's fate. It was a matter of propaganda. You were told that what you do is in response to the US's evil efforts to develop biological weapons against the Soviet Union. The US was lying, and was going to destroy our country with nuclear weapons and biological weapons. To protect our families, our children, ourselves, we needed to do exactly the same but with more powerful weapons. When you put everything together you come to a conclusion: I need to protect my family. I need to protect my children. I need to protect my country.

You developed the biological weapons, not deployed them. If you'd had your finger on the button, knowing what they can do, would you have deployed them ?

The easy response would be to say, "no, I wouldn't have done it", but I cannot say that is true. The person who is sitting just in front of you wouldn't do this. Now I know what really happened. Nobody wanted to destroy the Soviet Union. Nobody wanted to kill Soviet Union citizens. Physically I am the same person, but psychologically I am different.

What did your family think of what you were doing ?

Fortunately, practically nobody knew. They knew I was doing some secret work. My children found out after they came to the US. They love me. They love me because they think I am not a bad father. But at the same time I know they don't like what I've done.

You've often said that vaccines are not a good way to protect people against biological weapons. What's wrong with them ?

In general, nothing is wrong with vaccines. They have made a huge change in the world over the past two hundred years. They are perfect for protecting against many infectious diseases. But what is different with biological weapons is that they can be based on a huge number of different biological agents - in my opinion, at least 70, and you never know which kind is going to be used. Can you imagine vaccinating somebody against 70 different infectious agents ? It is virtually impossible from the health standpoint, the financial standpoint, and the scientific standpoint.

So what's the alternative ?

Our approach at Advanced Biosystems is significantly different. There are two subsystems of the immune system: acquired immunity, which is activated by vaccines against specific antigens, and innate immunity, which works non-specifically. We are targeting innate immunity, which is theoretically capable of protecting against any infectious agent. The project is funded by the US Army. Biological weapons work mostly by infecting people through their respiratory tract, so we want to enhance innate immunity in the respiratory tract. We have identified a group of cytokines capable of activating the immune cells of the respiratory tract. Our objective is to develop an inhaler containing micro-encapsulated cytokines to prevent degradation and toxicity. The inhaler could be used to treat people before a biological weapons attack and after they are exposed. We believe that this approach could reduce casualty numbers significantly in the event of a biological attack, and it could also be used to protect against some naturally occurring respiratory infections such as influenza or tuberculosis.

The US government must have been very interested in your research . . .

No. It took me quite some time to persuade them to fund it. They were very cautious.

Why ? Were they afraid that such work might be seen as offensive and so contravene the Biological Weapons Convention ?

In my opinion, yes. Once I talked to a government official about starting to develop vaccines and other immune system modifiers for aerosol application - because it is much easier to vaccinate troops using inhalers. And he said: "Ken, of course, we thought about this, but the problem is we don't want anybody to think that we are developing aerosol vaccines as a model for biological weapons." The US government is unbelievably overcautious. We don't have to pay attention, for example, if Russia says the US is doing something. Russia has no right to accuse anybody. I know from personal experience that the US would never be interested in developing biological weapons for one very important reason: there are not enough people with enough knowledge to do that. The only person in the US with a sophisticated knowledge in this area of biological weapons is Bill Patrick (who helped run the US's biological weapons programme from 1948 to 1969).

So what can the government do ?

We need to take a very aggressive approach and start developing real protection against biological weapons. We need a special government board overseeing this work, which covers everything from detection, identification, protective garments and disinfection, to the organisational tactics of medical services, diagnostics issues, treatment, re-treatment, and urgent prophylaxis.

Given that the Soviet Union cheated on the biological weapons treaty for decades, everyone agrees we need enforcement. How are we to do it ?

In my opinion - and I know some people are going to be disappointed in my response - this treaty is worthless. It isn't worth the price of the paper it's written on. Why ? Because I believe enforcement is impossible. Research and production are easy to hide and difficult to prove. Timetables for inspections are very limited, and it is impossible to search countries like Russia and China with such limited timeframes. Iraq is a small country, but we were unable to find everything until Saddam's son-in-law defected. But even in this case we have not "discovered" everything.


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