Sunday, 2 January 2011

Urals Federal District - Biohazard

During my research into the Urals Federal region and Ekaterinburg, I came across a book called Biohazard by Kanatjan Alibekov (or Ken Alibek, as he's now called), a famous Soviet scientist who worked for an agency called Biopreparat, but later defected to the West, writing this book as an exposé.

Biological warfare

Although the Cold War has long ended, I think we're still living in fear of Biological warfare, as much as we ever did.  The use of bioweapons to disable or kill enemy troops and civilian populations goes back to Antiquity - whether it was poisoning the water supply of enemy villages in Ancient Greece, catapulting plague-infected bodies into besieged towns during the Medieval period or giving Native Americans blankets smeared in smallpox in the 17th century, airborne diseases, contagions and viruses have been used during warfare, as far back as the records of war go. 

Alibek exposed the extent to which the Soviet Union, under the guise of a supposedly 'civilian' pharmaceutical agency, developed dangerous weapons using Tularemia, Q fever, Brucellosis (Malta Fever), Glanders and (most controversially) Smallpox.  This was in direct violation of the agreements of the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons convention, where the Soviet Union and 136 other countries signed up to a ban on the development or stockpiling of dangerous microbes.  Since the collapse of the Soviet 'Empire' and shift in focus to Iraq and Afghanistan, we've heard a lot about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) - biological weapons are also considered to be a WMD. 

In the age of air travel and frequent contact between people all over the world, I believe that Bioweapons pose an even great threat to humanity than ever.  We've recently seen how viruses such as swine flu and bird flu have spread across the world like wildfire.  The release of dangerous microbes into a population that has no immunisation could cause untold devastation and death.  Viruses don't tend to recognise national borders, so no one really gains, in the end.  Biological weapons are notoriously hard to control, so much so, that many nations are reluctant to develop them in the first place.  Certainly, the weapons developed in the Soviet Union during the period Alibek describes, caused dozens of human deaths, mostly scientists working with the dangerous substances and civilians who happened to work or live in the vicinity of a bioweapons plant - not to mention all the monkeys, rodents and other animals that were exposed to viruses during testing.

Anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk

The reason I came across Alibek's book in the first place, was because I was reading about the outbreak of Anthrax in Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk) in 1979.  It's unbelievable, really, that the Soviets would carry out bioweapon manufacture, in the midst of a civilian population.  My experience of Russia is that a human life sometimes doesn't count for much.  Perhaps understandable in a country where millions of people lost their lives fighting the Nazis in the Second World War. 

An estimated 100 people died as a result of leaked Anthrax from Military Compound 19, just outside Ekaterinburg.  Alibek mentions how overworked scientists generally were, therefore it's no surprise that an accident like this one would happen when, during a shift change on a Friday evening, someone overlooked the need to replace an air vent in the building, which lead to Anthrax being sprayed into the atmosphere outside and being carried on the wind towards a neighbouring factory. 

At a time when events like this were covered up by the Soviet authorities, the official story was put out that the workers had died as a result of eating contaminated meat that they'd bought on the black market (conveniently putting the blame on the victims).  No explanation was given for the fact that the majority of those who died were men (as if women and children don't eat meat) and that the deaths continued months after the event.  The outbreak was prolonged by some of the locals who, not knowing that Anthrax had been released from the plant, decided to sweep everything clean, stirring up the microbes again and causing even more deaths.  Sadly, a hundred stray dogs were rounded up and shot dead, in the belief that they had been scavenging on the (fictional) contaminated meat and were somehow responsible for prolonging the outbreak. 

It seems as though the truth about what happened in Sverdlovsk in 1979 is now generally known by people in Russia and one of the rock groups I mentioned in my last blog, Smyslovye Gallyutsinatsii named one of their albums Rus-66, perhaps in tribute to the 66 deaths that were confirmed to be as a result of the Anthrax leak. 

The dangers of Smallpox

What was most frightening about Alibek's books was the fact that the Soviet Union was developing a weapon based on the Smallpox virus.  Smallpox was one of the greatest killer's in the world, a highly infectious disease that causes a very painful death, it was reponsible for the deaths of about 400,000 Europeans every year in the 18th century!  It also wiped out the native populations of the Americas and caused untold devastation among the native Australian population, when European carriers brought the disease to Australia in the 1780's.  As late as the 20th century Smallpox is believed to have caused between 300 and 500 million deaths.

The first ever vaccine for any disease was developed in response to the devastation caused by Smallpox.  In 1796 an English doctor, Edward Jenner from rural Gloucestershire, discovered that milkmaids who had been exposed, through their work, to a less virulent form of pox called 'cowpox', seemed to have immunity from Smallpox.  By taking fluid from the pus in blisters caused by cowpox and injecting these into a young boy, he was able to inoculate the boy and prevent him from falling ill with Smallpox, when he was later exposed to this.  The concept of vaccination is that of injecting a small piece of the virus into your body - not enough (hopefully) to make you seriously ill, but enough to rally your immune system and make your body 'ready' to fight the virus in the early stages of infection.  As I've travelled a lot, I've had quite a few vaccinations in my time!

The word vaccination comes from the Latin for cow, vacca, referring back to Jenner's original experiment.  One of the greatest achievements of modern Science was to completely eradicate the Smallpox virus and the world was free of Smallpox by 1977, the last natural case being recorded in Somalia in that year.  Vaccination against Smallpox had been routine up until that point, despite the fact that it was a little bit dangerous and would result in death in a small number of cases.  During the 1970's most of the world's governments decided to discontinue routine vaccination against Smallpox.  What makes Alibek's research frightening is that Soviet scientists recognised the potential power of harnassing a Smallpox bioweapon, precisely because the population of the late-20th century world no longer had immunisation against the disease. 

Alibek as a man

Alibek's character is a complicated one.  Here is someone who actively turned his knowledge and research to work that could potentially kill millions of people.  One of the main reasons he defected to the West was because he no longer wanted to be involved in the development of biological weapons.  I can kind of understand the way he got sucked into it as a young scientist, eager for a chance to be involved in exciting research and desperate to be promoted and recognised.  Like many of the decisions we make regarding our lives, it's harder to get out of the life you have created for yourself, the longer to continue to live in that way.  Certainly, Alibek rose through the ranks of the Soviet military and held a very powerful position, one of the few Kazakhs to gain that level of authority in the Soviet capital, Moscow. 

When Alibek defected to the West, his knowledge of biological warfare was suddenly very much in demand and he found himself being offered consultancy fees from various different countries.  He preferred to stick to the more positive work of developing vaccines, many of them to counteract the threat of the new viral strains he'd helped create in the 1980's.  Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, biological weapons are still a major threat to human populations.  As a result of the covert development of bioweapons in Soviet Union in the 70's and 80's, there are a lot of Russian scientists with experience in the manufacture of bioweapons, who have been attracted by lucrative contracts working for a range of governments, some of them a direct threat to the populations of Western countries. 

Having said that, an effective biological weapon has never actually been used in a way that caused millions of deaths and (I'm hoping) perhaps, at the end of the day, man won't manage to master nature in this regard. 

Image credits:

The photo of the book cover was taken by me.  I read the version published in 2000 by Arrow Books.

The image of Edward Jenner was taken from wikimedia and is in the public domain.
Post a Comment