New York Times
        June 20, 2000

        In Gamble, U.S. Supports
     Russian Germ Warfare


            BOLENSK, Russia -- At this
            sprawling, rundown research
        complex where Soviet scientists
        once secretly worked to turn
        plague, tularemia, glanders and
        anthrax into weapons, the Clinton
        administration is taking what
        many consider a perilous gamble.

        The administration has been
        financing research here and at
        other institutes throughout the
        former Soviet Union by scientists
        who only a decade ago
        manipulated genes to make deadly
        viruses and bacteria even hardier
        and resistant to vaccines and

        Since 1994, the United States
        government has spent $20 million
        helping some 2,200 scientists at
        30 institutes in the former Soviet
        Union turn their deadly skills to
        public health and other peaceful
        research. Administration officials
        say this money -- which,
        according to the General
        Accounting Office may increase
        to $270 million by 2005 -- is also
        intended to prevent the Soviet
        scientists from selling their
        expertise to Iran, Iraq, and other
        "rogue" states or terrorist groups
        trying to acquire germ weapons.

        Until recently, most of the support
        came from the Departments of
        State, Defense, and Energy. But
        prompted by the threats of
        bioterrorism and naturally
        emerging diseases to American
        health and the nation's food
        supply, the Departments of
        Agriculture, Health and Human
        Services, and others have now
        joined the campaign.

        Among the most intriguing
        newcomers is the Defense
        Advanced Research Projects
        Agency, or Darpa, the military
        group that helped invent the
        Internet and which is known for
        supporting avant-garde research.
        Darpa has cautiously and quietly
        allocated more than $3 million
        since 1998 for work, including
        some here at Obolensk, that in
        many ways resembles research
        that was once the source of
        America's greatest fears.

        The administration knows that this
        assistance could help Russia
        continue developing germ
        weapons, if, as some suspect,
        research continues at its four
        still-closed military labs. Can the
        Russians, who doubled the size of
        their vast covert germ warfare
        program after signing the 1972
        treaty banning such weapons, now
        be trusted?

        "No one really knows," Wendy
        Orent, an expert on the former
        Soviet program, concluded last
        month in American Prospect, a
        liberal magazine.

        But in a report to Congress in
        January, the Pentagon concluded
        that the access gained to Obolensk
        through such assistance gave it
        "high confidence" that neither
        Obolensk nor Vector, the former
        Soviet viral weapons complex in
        Siberia, was now engaged in
        activities related to germ warfare.

        In fact, the administration
        maintains that the risk of not
        helping Russian scientists far
        outweighs the risk of doing so. Darpa argues that
        tapping the knowledge of the Russian scientists, who
        continued making ever deadlier germ weapons two
        decades after President Richard M. Nixon ended
        America's program in 1969, will benefit science and
        strengthen American national security.

        Still, the risks are obvious here at Obolensk.

        In a way, the place is a monument of sorts to
        communism's failure. Many of its 90 buildings are
        half-built; several labs appear abandoned. Weeds have
        replaced the grass shown in photos of the installation in
        its prime.

        Fifty miles southwest of Moscow but unlisted on Soviet
        maps, Obolensk until recently was closed not only to
        foreigners, but also to Soviet scientists who were not
        part of the germ warfare program. Last month,
        however, Gen. Nikolai N. Urakov, the institute's
        long-serving director, invited an American reporter to
        attend the first large open scientific conference
        Obolensk has ever sponsored.

        The remnants of germ warfare research are still eerily
        evident: the heavy metal locks on doors on the third and
        fourth floors of Building No. 1, which confined the
        most deadly of Obolensk's collection of 2,000 strains
        of pathogens to air-tight rooms; giant pipes that carried
        breathable air to scientists in contaminated areas,
        emergency telephones, fire extinguishers, alarms and
        even the space suits on display at the building's

        While such suits are still worn on the third floor where
        scientists still study the most dangerous agents, Russia
        says that these labs are now dedicated to preventing
        and curing disease.

        American scientists with proper vaccinations have
        been permitted to visit the "hot" labs in Building 1, the
        nine-story, glass-and-metal heart of this vast complex.

        Aid from the United States, much of it channeled
        through a multinational group known as the
        International Science and Technology Center, now pays
        roughly half of the institute's costs.

        Obolensk now employs 1,125 scientists and
        technicians, about half its peak size.

        With $3.45 million in grants from the multinational
        group, Obolensk has become the second largest
        recipient of American biological aid after Vector. Andy
        Weber, a special adviser to the Pentagon's Office of
        Threat Reduction, told conferees last month that aid to
        Obolensk rose sharply in 1997 after General Urakov
        rejected Iranian overtures to share his center's
        biological expertise with Tehran.

        Still, few officials deny the potential danger in
        American financing of Obolensk's most advanced work.
        Consider Darpa's $175,000, two-year grant to Igor V.
        Abaev, a senior researcher and weapons program
        veteran. His goal is to isolate and compare genomes of
        Burkholderia, which causes glanders, an inflammatory
        disease that strikes horses, mules and other animals and
        sometimes people.

        There is no human vaccine to prevent glanders, and
        once contracted, the disease is not always curable.

        Dr. Abaev combines single strands of DNA from two
        different types of Burkholderia. The DNA parts that are
        identical, or extremely similar in both strands, then
        form a double strand with each other. The parts that do
        not pair up, or pair up poorly, are unique to those
        species. This process, called subtractive hybridization,
        enables scientists to identify, and later to clone the
        fragments that differentiate the two species. This, in
        turn, produces diagnostic markers that could lead to
        vaccines designed to emphasize those differences.

        "As weapons, such organisms represent a serious
        potential biological threat," said Stephen S. Morse,
        program manager in Darpa's defense sciences office.
        "But because these two species primarily affected
        horses, American scientists stopped working on them
        decades ago. As a result, we now know all too little
        about them."

        Only a month ago, he noted, a scientist at the Army's
        research lab at Fort Detrick, Md., who was trying to
        develop a glanders vaccine accidentally contracted the

        Officials in Washington are still trying to determine
        what happened.

        Dr. Abaev enthusiastically displayed the new
        equipment that the American grant had enabled him to
        buy, including a hybridization chamber, which allows
        him to mix the DNA fragments. Though such machines
        are standard in the United States, they remain rare in
        cash-strapped Russia.

        Another joint project generating excitement and concern
        is a $500,000 grant from the International Science and
        Technology Center to a collaboration that includes
        Nikolai A. Staritsin, an expert on anthrax, the former
        Soviet Union's germ weapon of choice, and American
        researchers at the Northern Arizona University in
        Flagstaff, and at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

        The scientists are using DNA fingerprinting, molecular
        typing, plasmid profiling and other modern techniques
        of molecular epidemiology to identify anthrax strains
        by region and to help scientists distinguish among
        virulent and nonvirulent strains. They hope to improve
        their understanding of what specifically causes anthrax

        Although the United States and Russia have vaccines to
        prevent the disease and antibiotics that supposedly cure
        it, Dr. Staritsin said much remained unknown about the
        DNA fragments already examined, including the reason
        some genes were latent and others were not.

        While both the United States and Russia made weapons
        from anthrax, Ken Alibek, a senior scientist who
        defected from the Soviet secret program, argues that
        Russian scientists have produced anthrax strains that
        are hardier and more virulent than those from the
        United States.

        Scientists from the United States first understood just
        how advanced the Russians were in the mid-1990's
        when Dr. Staritsin and Andrei Pomerantsev, another
        Obolensk scientist, reported that they had transferred
        genes from Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that normally
        does not cause disease in humans, into anthrax, which if
        untreated, is highly lethal.

        Hamsters that were given this new agent did not
        respond to Russia's own vaccine against anthrax. This
        news caused furious debate among Western scientists,
        who wondered why the Russians were bothering to
        create such a strain, and deep anxiety over whether the
        United States' own vaccine would be able to block the
        new Russian creation. Washington has been eager to
        obtain a sample of the strain ever since.

        Dr. Staritsin insisted in an interview that he and his
        colleagues had not tried to develop a modified disease
        impervious to anyone's vaccine or antibiotics when
        they performed the manipulation in 1993.

        They decided to transfer the genes, he said, because the
        two organisms were "closely related and often found in
        soil in close proximity." They feared that one day the
        two organisms might naturally exchange genes without
        any external intervention. "We wanted to understand
        what the result might be," he said.

        In any event, he said, the new strain was too unstable to
        be useful in weapons.

        Some will view this work as evidence that Russian
        scientists "were trying to make an even nastier
        weapon," one American said. "Others will not. How do
        you gauge intent?"

        Whether Russia is honoring President Boris N.
        Yeltsin's 1992 pledge to end the secret germ warfare
        program may never be known. But in Dr. Staritsin's
        case, concerns are diminishing, United States officials
        say. Shortly before the Obolensk conference, he and a
        Russian colleague traveled to the Centers for Disease
        Control and Prevention in Atlanta and to Fort Detrick to
        give American scientists samples of two rare Russian
        strains from Obolensk's collection of 3,000 anthrax
        strains, believed to be the world's largest.

        Though the "Tzenkovsky" strains, named for their late
        19th-century Russian inventor, are nonvirulent and
        hence, usable only in vaccines, the exchange
        established the legal and scientific precedents for future
        trades of virulent strains, like the genetically modified
        strain that American scientists have long coveted. The
        exchange will probably occur later this year or early
        next, Russian and American experts say.

        "They didn't need us to do their research," said an
        American scientist as he sipped one of the endless tiny
        glasses of vodka that lined a dinner's banquet table
        during the conference.

        "They were way ahead of us in many areas despite their
        obsolete equipment and bulldozer investigative
        techniques. So we have every interest in helping them
        overcome their past and join the world's transparent
        scientific community."

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