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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)



TESTIMONY OF DR. KENNETH ALIBEK

CHIEF SCIENTIST AT HADRON, INC.

Congressman Hunter, Congressman Weldon, and members of the Subcommittees, thank you for the opportunity to discuss the issues of biological weapons and biological defense preparedness with you. I am in a rather unique position to discuss these issues, since I developed biological weapons for the Soviet Union for nearly twenty years, until my defection in 1992. When I left the Russian biological warfare program, I had been serving for four years as First Deputy Director of Biopreparat. Biopreparat, the civilian arm of the biological weapons program, comprised over half of the entire program’s personnel and facilities. At that time, I was responsible for approximately 32,000 employees and 40 facilities. Since arriving to the United States, my personal and professional goal has been to make the greatest contribution I can to eliminating the danger of biological weapons.

WHAT ARE BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS?

Biological weapons are weapons of mass destruction (or mass casualty weapons, to be precise, since they do not damage nonliving entities) that are based on bacteria, viruses, rickettsia, fungi, or toxins produced by these organisms. Compared to other types of weapons (nuclear, chemical or conventional), biological weapons are unique in their diversity. Dozens of different agents can be used to make a biological weapon, and each agent will produce a markedly different effect. These differences in effect are shaped by various properties of the particular agent, such as its contagiousness, the length of time after release that it survives in the environment, the dose required to infect a victim, and of course the type of disease that the agent produces.

Although most people think of biological weapons as anti-personnel weapons, some biological weapons are designed to destroy crops or livestock. In the future, it is theoretically possible that new types of biological weapons will be produced that:

damage military equipment by causing corrosion

degrade different types of plastics used in equipment, computers, etc.

render fuels useless.

Biological weapons formulations are of two types: a liquid or a dry powder. For most agents, the liquid form is easier to produce, but the dry form stores longer and disperses better when deployed. The basic steps for creating a liquid biological weapon are:

obtaining a sample of the microorganisms to be used

culturing the microorganisms until there is enough for a weapon

concentrating the culture to make it strong enough for a weapon

adding certain ingredients to stabilize the culture.

For a dry weapon formulation, this liquid culture is dried out and then ground up into microscopic particles. For toxin weapons, the toxin must first be extracted from the source—either the liquid bacterial culture or a plant or animal—and then concentrated.

Biological weapons are relatively inexpensive and easy to produce. Although the most sophisticated and effective versions require considerable equipment and scientific expertise, primitive versions can be produced in a small area with minimal equipment by someone with limited training.

Biological weapons can be deployed in three ways:

contamination of food or water supplies, which are then ingested by the victims

release of infected vectors, such as mosquitoes or fleas, which then bite the victims

creation of an aerosol cloud, which is then inhaled by the victims (or, if the targets are plants, the cloud then settles on and infects the plants).

Since the U.S. has highly effective water purification systems, contamination of the water supply is the least effective method for disseminating a biological weapon in this country. Contamination of food supplies would most likely be used in a terrorist rather than a military attack, since it is difficult to contaminate enough food to gain a military advantage. Release of infected vectors is not particularly efficient for either military or terrorist purposes and entails a high probability of affecting those producing the weapons or living nearby.

By far, the most efficient and effective mode for applying biological weapons is creation of an aerosol cloud. Such a cloud is made up of microscopic particles and is therefore invisible. It can be produced in several ways, all of which involve either an explosion (a bomb or a bomb within a missile) or spraying (usually involving a special nozzle on a spray tank). The effectiveness of the cloud is determined by numerous factors, such as the amount of agent that survives the explosion or spraying, and the wind and weather conditions. The primary result of an effective cloud is simultaneous infections among all those who were exposed to a sufficiently dense portion of the cloud. In addition, agents that can survive for a long time in the environment will eventually settle, contaminating the ground, buildings, water and food sources, and so on. In some cases, these sediments can form another dangerous aerosol cloud if they are disturbed.

THE USSR’S BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS PROGRAM

Although the Soviet Union was a party to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, it continued a high-intensity program to develop and produce biological weapons through at least the early 1990s. The size and scope of this program were enormous. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, over 60,000 people were involved to varying degrees in the research, development, and production of biological weapons. Hundreds of tons of anthrax weapon formulation were stockpiled, along with dozens of tons of smallpox and plague. The total production capacity of all of the facilities involved was many hundreds of tons of various agents annually.

The Soviet Union’s biological weapons program was established in the late 1920s. Prior to World War II, research was conducted on a wide variety of agents. By the beginning of the war, the Soviet Union was able to manufacture weapons using the agents for tularemia, epidemic typhus, and Q fever, and was also working on techniques for producing weapons using the agents for smallpox, plague, and anthrax. My own analysis of a tularemia outbreak among German troops in southern Russia in 1942 indicates that this incident was very likely the result of the USSR’s use of biological weapons. There was also a suspicious outbreak of Q fever in 1943 among German troops vacationing in the Crimea.

World War II brought several advances for the Soviet biological weapons program. First, the USSR gained access to German industrial techniques and machinery for manufacturing large-scale biological reactors and other industrial equipment. Second, the Soviets obtained valuable information from the Japanese biological weapons program. This information gave the Soviet program an instant boost in its development.

After the war, the Soviet program continued to expand and develop. In many cases, it closely shadowed the U.S. biological weapons program. While the pre-war list of weaponized agents included tularemia, epidemic typhus, and Q fever, the post-war list was expanded to include:

smallpox

plague

anthrax

Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis

Glanders

brucellosis

Marburg infection.

Numerous other agents were studied for possible use as biological weapons, including:

Ebola

Junin virus (Argentinian hemorrhagic fever)

Machupo virus (Bolivian hemorrhagic fever)

yellow fever

Lassa fever

Japanese encephalitis

Russian spring-summer encephalitis.

Techniques and equipment were developed and refined for more efficient cultivation and concentration of the agents. Methods for producing dry weapons formulations for a number of agents were also developed. In addition to weapons to affect humans, a number of weapons to affect crops and livestock were developed using such agents as:

psittacosis (affects fowl)

ornithosis (affects fowl)

Rinderpest virus (affects cattle)

African swine fever virus (affects swine)

wheat stem rust spores (affect wheat crops)

rice blast spores (affect rice crops).

During this post-war period, which lasted until the signing of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the Soviet Union also formulated its doctrine regarding the production and use of biological weapons. In the Soviets’ definition, "strategic" weapons were those to be used on the deepest targets, i.e. the U.S. and other distant countries; "operational" weapons were those intended for use on medium-range targets, nearer than the strategic targets but well behind the battlefront; and "tactical" weapons were those to be used at the battlefront. Biological weapons were excluded from use as "tactical" weapons, and were divided into "strategic" and "operational" types. "Strategic" biological agents were mostly lethal, such as smallpox, anthrax, and plague; "operational" agents were mostly incapacitating, such as tularemia, glanders, and Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis. For both types of weapons, use was envisioned on a massive scale, to cause extensive disruption of vital civilian and military activity. The Soviets also established so-called mobilization capacities: facilities whose peacetime work was not biological weapons production, but which could rapidly begin weapons production if war was imminent.

It is important to note that, in the Soviets’ view, the best biological agents were those for which there was no prevention and no cure. For those agents for which vaccines or treatment existed—such as plague, which can be treated with antibiotics—antibiotic-resistant or immunosuppressive variants were to be developed. This is in sharp contrast to the philosophy of the U.S. program (terminated in 1969 by President Nixon’s Executive Order), which stringently protected the safety of its biological weapons researchers by insisting that a vaccine or treatment be available for any agent studied.

After the Soviet Union became a party to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, internal debate ensued about the fate of the existing biological weapons program. The end result was that the program was not dismantled, but further intensified. During the period 1972-1992, the focus of the program was expanded. In addition to continuing previous types of work (developing improved manufacturing and testing techniques and equipment; developing improved delivery means for existing weapons; and exploring other possible agents as weapons), new emphasis was placed on:

conducting molecular biology and genetic engineering research in order to develop antibiotic-resistant and immunosuppressive strains and to create genetically combined strains of two or more viruses

studying peptides with psychogenic or neurogenic effects as possible weapons

transforming non-pathogenic microorganisms and commensals into pathogenic microorganisms

testing all of the facilities considered part of the "mobilization capacity" to verify their readiness.

During this period, the Soviet program not only caught up with the U.S. program (which was halted in 1969), behind which it had lagged by about five years, but it became the most sophisticated biological weapons program in the world by far.

However, as the Soviet Union weakened during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as more and more detail was revealed regarding the Soviet biological weapons program, the West put increasing pressure on the Soviets. In 1991, a series of trilateral visits were conducted among the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Note that the Soviet program still existed when these visits took place; the Soviets covered up the evidence as best they could.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in early 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree banning all biological weapons-related activity. Considerable downsizing in this area did indeed occur, and included destruction of existing biological weapons stockpiles. However, there still remains doubt that Russia has completely dismantled the old Soviet program.

Certainly, now that the Cold War is over and U.S.-Russia relations have changed markedly for the better, Russia presents far less of a military threat to the U.S. However, it would not be prudent to consider that Russia presents no military threat whatsoever. In addition, biological weapons technology can possibly proliferate from Russia to other countries less friendly to the U.S. For these reasons, it is important that we continue to analyze the situation with biological weapons in Russia.

There are three main reasons that I am concerned about possible biological weapons research and development in Russia today. First, many of Russia’s former biological weapons facilities have never been subjected to international inspections or even visits by foreign representatives. Second, Russia continues to publicly deny the size or even existence of many aspects of the former Soviet program. And third, among Russian scientists’ published work, there are many studies I feel are dual-purpose or even outright offensive biological weapons work.

PROLIFERATION OF BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS

Of course, Russia is not the only biological weapons threat we face. A number of other states are known or suspected to possess biological weapons. Terrorist groups also present an increasing threat; the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan was working on biological weapons, and Osama bin Laden’s organization apparently has biological weapons as well. The extent of the threat is no surprise. Biological weapons have a number of very attractive features for both military and terrorist uses: Their killing power can approach that of nuclear weapons. They destroy only people, leaving infrastructure intact. They are relatively inexpensive to make. A small-scale biological weapons attack using a common disease organism, such as tularemia or plague, can be masked as a natural outbreak. The raw material—disease-producing strains of microorganisms—is fairly easy to obtain. And the techniques and equipment that are used in ordinary biotechnology research and production can be used for biological weapons.

Since the Soviet Union and Russia had the most sophisticated and powerful biological weapons program on earth, Russia presented and presents a great proliferation threat. I should note that, to the best of my knowledge, the Soviet Union and Russia have not exported actual weapons strains of microorganisms. However, there are a number of other ways that proliferation can occur.

The first is by experienced scientists traveling or moving abroad. For example, I have unconfirmed information that some scientists from the Kirov facility visited North Korea in the early 1990s. In addition, numerous scientists who used to work for the biological weapons program are now living abroad. Many of these scientists live in the U.S. and in Europe, but others have gone to Iran and other countries where their expertise can be put to nefarious use.

A second type of proliferation involves scientists from other countries being brought to the proliferating country for training in biotechnology, microbiology, and genetic engineering techniques. For instance, for years Moscow State University provided such training to scientists from dozens of countries, including Cuba, North Korea, Eastern Bloc nations, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

A third form of proliferation involves private companies selling scientific expertise. For instance, I have a flier from a company that advertises recombinant Francisella tularensis bacteria with altered virulence genes. Ostensibly, these organisms are being offered for vaccine production; the flier also notes that they can be used as genetic recipients and to create recombinant microorganisms of biologically active agents. The authors of the flier also express willingness to form cooperative ventures to which they will contribute their genetic engineering knowledge. The director of this company used to work for the USSR’s biological weapons program.

A fourth type of proliferation occurs when the proliferating country sells equipment that can be used in biological weapons production. An example of this is the planned sale by Russia of large fermenters to Iraq after the Persian Gulf War. Similarly, in 1990, Biopreparat was negotiating the sale of equipment to Cuba.

The fifth kind of proliferation consists of published scientific literature. Just by reading scientific literature published in Russia in the last few years, a biological weapons developer could learn how to genetically engineer vaccinia virus and then transfer the results to smallpox; how to create antibiotic-resistant strains of anthrax, plague, and glanders; and how to mass-produce Marburg virus and Machupo virus. The billions of dollars that the Soviet Union and Russia put into biotechnology research are available to anyone for the cost of a translator.

I must emphasize the complexity of the proliferation issue for biological weapons. In many cases, the same equipment and knowledge that can be used to produce biological weapons can also be used to produce legitimate biotechnological products such as vaccines and antibiotics. Thus, we cannot forbid the export of most of the relevant knowledge and equipment. Given the current economic situation in the states of the former Soviet Union, the incentive to sell these wares without regard to their eventual use is great both for the government and for individual scientists and businessmen.

OUR PREPAREDNESS FOR MILITARY AND TERRORIST BIOLOGICAL ATTACKS

The ultimate goal of biodefense is to prevent suffering and loss of life, thereby rendering biological weapons ineffective. We must first be able to identify that an attack has occurred. This involves developing equipment to detect a biological attack and diagnostic equipment to identify the weapons agent, as well as providing training to hospital and health department personnel in recognizing and reporting the signs of a biological attack. Once an attack has been identified, we must be able to treat the disease or, better yet, prevent symptoms from developing.

I have a number of particular concerns regarding U.S. military preparedness for biological attack.

Detection

Currently available detection equipment can identify four biological agents. The planned improved version will be able to detect "at least eight agents". A system to be fielded in 2002 will presumably be able to detect more than eight agents, though I have seen no specific number. Yet there are dozens of agents that could potentially be used as biological weapons. Our current systems that identify four or eight agents essentially serve as instructions to potential attackers to use agents other than those specific four or eight, to evade our detectors. Are there any plans to develop a "universal" detector that is not limited to specific agents?

How and where will point detection equipment be deployed in the field? Is this equipment portable? The area in which biological attacks could take place on a battlefield is very large.

In my opinion, the most useful detection equipment would be a portable, nonspecific detection system that could be easily positioned anywhere on the battlefield (e.g., each platoon could have one) and would detect at least the fact of a biological attack, even if it is incapable of identifying the specific agent. Detectors capable of rapidly identifying the specific agent, such as those we are currently developing, could be used after the fact of the biological attack has been established by the nonspecific detector.

How will the information provided by these detectors be used? Instantaneous detection (which is not currently available) might serve as a signal to troops to don protective gear, but detection with any delay (such as we have now) would not serve this purpose. At most, it would signal medical personnel to administer any available urgent prophylaxis, obtain appropriate medical supplies, and brace themselves for the onslaught of illness.

Protective equipment

What is the strategy for deploying protective equipment? Do we plan to have personnel use this equipment all the time (which is not realistic)? Only after an attack has been detected (when it may cut the number of casualties somewhat, but would not eliminate them)? Or some criteria between these two possibilities?

What procedures are in place for large-area decontamination (for persistent agents) and deratization (for agents that will infect the local rodent population)? (Presumably we do not plan to have soldiers wear their gear for an indefinite time after an attack.) Do we have any research and development being done in this area?

Medical countermeasures

There are a substantial number of additional vaccines under development. Are we planning to develop vaccines against all possible agents? As it stands now, the development and administration of specific vaccines simply serve as instructions to our potential attackers to use an agent against which the troops are not vaccinated.

Do we plan to vaccinate servicemen against all possible weapons agents? Against most of them? What are the criteria by which we will decide to vaccinate our troops against particular agents? How will we accommodate changing threat situations, given that vaccines take weeks to months to reach full effectiveness?

Given personnel turnover in the military, what are our plans to keep all of our troops vaccinated?

What are the costs inherent in these mass vaccination programs, including the costs of continually vaccinating new recruits? (As I understand it, the costs of the anthrax vaccination program alone are staggering.)

What are the potential health effects of multiple vaccinations?

How do we plan to deal with the problems of vaccination refusal and public relations, which we are already experiencing with the anthrax vaccination program and which are sure to multiply exponentially with additional vaccinations? When a servicemember refuses to be vaccinated and is subsequently discharged, what does it cost us in terms of the cost of that servicemember’s training and his/her experience?

Do we have any plans to develop vaccines or medical countermeasures against genetically altered forms of the various agents, including antibiotic-resistant and vaccine-resistant strains?

RECOMMENDATIONS

We need to revise our understanding of the biological weapons threat in order to develop an adequate defense. Rather than responding to specific threats, which are variable and can change rapidly by virtue of biotechnology, we should develop measures that are sufficiently broad-spectrum to address potential biological threats before they exist. Although vaccination and traditional medical countermeasures (e.g. antibiotics) are all we have to counter the biological weapons threat at present, I believe it would be a far better use of our resources to develop new treatment and urgent prophylaxis methods, particularly those that are broad spectrum in nature. Similarly, I believe our detection and consequence management approaches should be broad-spectrum in nature.



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