MONTEREY, California -- The former Soviet republic had the most successful bioweapons program in the world -- and those in charge of what remains of
the program would like to keep it that way.
Soviet researchers were wildly successful at creating huge quantities of super-virulent bacterial agents that resisted vaccines and treatments, said
Raymond Zilinskas, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Non Proliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
But although the program's infrastructure collapsed with the demise of the Soviet Union, Russian researchers continue to guard their souped-up
biowarfare agents closely, refusing to allow the United States to test vaccines against them. No one knows why, but Zilinskas has a theory:
"They think, 'We have more knowledge and more sophistication with biological weapons than anyone has ever had, so let's keep that intact,'" he
The upshot, Zilinskas said, is that Russia and the rest of the former Soviet republic hold strains of smallpox, anthrax and other bacteria that resist
U.S. vaccines and antibiotics.
The Soviets worked long and hard to develop strains of infections that would defy treatment and vaccines, he said, and tried various methods. They
transferred genes from the Ebola virus into smallpox, but found that it wasn't any more deadly.
Eventually they did succeed at producing several super-virulent agents including what Zilinskas called a "devilish little machine" -- Yersinia
pestis, also known as the black plague. They added a touch of Venezuelan equine encephalitis (PDF) to make it even more resistant and deadly.
"This is the epitome of what the Soviets were able to accomplish in their bioweapons programs," Zilinskas said.
So how can the United States defend itself against such a threat?
Not with duct tape and plastic sheeting, according to Zilinskas. He criticized the Bush administration's emphasis on stockpiling supplies to try to
block contamination from a biological attack.
Such advice might be helpful for peace of mind, he said, but it is useless for actual safety because it's not likely the public would find out about
a bioterror attack until three to six days after it hits.
Muin Khoury, director of the Office of Genomics and Disease Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed that the U.S.
government's focus is out of whack.
"Public health is in disarray, and this emphasis on terrorism is eroding the public health infrastructure even more," said Khoury, who spoke as part
of a panel on the use of DNA information.
On the upside, Zilinskas said, money spent on bioterror research is better preparing the United States to react to naturally occurring outbreaks of
infectious disease, such as resistant bacteria or a killer flu.
"We're doing the right things for the wrong reasons," he said.
Zilinskas said shoring up U.S. bioterror defenses will take a much more integrated approach.
"There is no technological solution to terrorism. So in order to get a grip on it, we need the help of social sciences," he said.
As part of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which is funded by the Turner Foundation, Zilinskas and some colleagues are developing a program to teach
ethics to undergraduate molecular biologists. The idea is to encourage scientists to work toward benevolent ends.
The United Nations should also invest in an international science commission on ethics, he said.
Zilinskas acknowledged that some scientists don't have a choice. If Saddam Hussein orders an Iraqi scientist to make a bioweapon, he'd be risking
his life to say no. But, Zilinskas said, with some ethical awareness, these scientists could later become whistle blowers, or be more inclined to
cooperate with arms inspectors.
He said ethics training is even more important considering that many of the talented Soviet scientists who worked on these "devilish" bioweapons
projects are now in the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom doing regular science.
"These people don't want their colleagues to know their past, they just want to be scientists."