TESTIMONY OF

DR. KENNETH ALIBEK

PRESIDENT, ADVANCED BIOSYSTEMS, INC

BEFORE THE

COMMITTEE ON INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

DECEMBER 5, 2001

  

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss the issues of biological weapons and biological terrorism 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.  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. 

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 can be deployed in three ways: 

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

·        Contamination of physical objects (e.g. books, mail), leading to inhalational or contact infection

·        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). 

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. 

GLOBAL BIOLOGICAL WEAPON PROLIFERATION

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the threat of proliferation of mass casualty weapons has grown dramatically. In some ways, the danger posed by the proliferation of biological weapons and biotechnology is greater than that of nuclear proliferation. For example, the acquisition, manufacture, deployment, and movement of nuclear components or weapons is much more expensive and difficult to achieve than that of biological agents. A freeze-dried vial of anthrax can easily be obtained and concealed, and the knowledge of how to turn that vial of anthrax into a biological weapon is in the possession of hundreds of scientists and technicians. The recent incidents of anthrax dissemination through the Postal Service have only served to demonstrate the reality of this threat. 

The growing frustrations among scientists within the former Soviet bioweapons community add to the risks of proliferation. Despite initiatives directed by the United States government to employ some of these scientists and to shift the focus of their research to peaceful projects, more needs to be done. Many of these scientists are highly trained in biotechnology and their talents could be directed toward finding new methods of preventing or treating the diseases caused by these pathogens. Several former bioweapons scientists have emigrated to the West and are currently under-employed. We fear that in order to feed their families, others may offer their technical skills on the open market, which could provide our enemies with technical expertise or ready-made, engineered organisms. Some Russian microbiologists are reportedly teaching students from rogue states that are interested in this expertise.  Other prominent scientists have simply dropped out of sight. 

In a report to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1995, the U.S. Office of Technological Assessment identified 17 nations believed to possess biological weapons. It is estimated that at least 20 countries, including China, Iraq, North Korea, and Israel, either have active research programs or were formerly involved in biological weapons research and production. In many cases, these are nations that are also engaged in chemical and nuclear programs, since they feel the necessity to protect themselves from hostile neighbors by any means necessary. 

ANTHRAX

The use of anthrax as a biological weapon has gained a great deal of attention in the last 2 months.  Anthrax is a bacterial infection caused by Bacillus anthracis, and has long been seen as one of the most likely candidates for weaponization, having been studied by the Soviet Union, United States, United Kingdom, Iraq, and others.  

The infection can take one of three forms, characterized by the route of entry into the body:  cutaneous, gastrointestinal, and inhalational.  Cutaneous anthrax, the form seen in newsrooms in New York City, is characterized by a formation of a skin lesion, or eschar, at the site of infection.  This is the most common form of infection, caused when anthrax spores gain entry to the skin via a cut or scrape while the person is handling anthrax-contaminated material, normally an infected animal carcass.  Cutaneous anthrax is easily treatable with antibiotics and has a low mortality rate. 

Gastrointestinal anthrax is associated with consuming food contaminated with anthrax spores.  This is the rarest form of infection, and is also treatable with antibiotics if seen early enough. 

Inhalational anthrax is the most serious form of anthrax infection, seen in the cases in Florida and Washington DC.  The disease begins when aerosolized anthrax spores are inhaled.  Once in the lungs, immune systems cells called macrophages, whose normal function is to ingest, kill, and degrade invading pathogens and activate other immune system cells.  However, instead of being killed, the spores reactivate and grow into live bacterial cells.  The macrophages transport the bacteria to the lymph nodes, where they proliferate and spread, eventually breaking out of the lymph system into the bloodstream.  During this period of lymphatic replication, the patient only displays non-specific symptoms much like the flu.  Once in the bloodstream, the bacteria proliferate further and begin producing anthrax toxin.  Eventually the bacteria spread through the entire circulatory system at high concentrations.  Death from inhalational anthrax is associated with shock and multiple organ failure.  When untreated, inhalational anthrax is almost 100% fatal, and though antibiotics (such as ciprofloxacin) can have an effect if administered early enough (as has been the case for the recent survivors of anthrax exposure), once the patient shows specific symptoms of anthrax infection, it is usually too late.   Cases of inhalational anthrax were much more numerous at the end of the 19th century, when the disease was associated with occupational exposure to contaminated animal hides and wool (leading to its being termed woolsorters’ disease).  

THE REAL EFFECTS OF BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS: THE SOVIET/RUSSIAN PROGRAM

The Soviet biological weapons research program lasted for over fifty years until its official dissolution by Boris Yeltsin in 1992.  In that time, 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, there are still questions as to the true status of research at the laboratories formerly involved in the program.  Therefore, it would not be prudent to consider that Russia presents no military threat whatsoever.  In addition, as noted above, 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 collaborate with Russia to reduce the threat of proliferation.  

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.  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. 

To gain insight into the extent and sophistication of the weapons research performed in the Soviet Union, consider the following excerpt from an interview published in the 3 March 1998 issue of the Russian newspaper Izvestiya with Lieutenant General Valentin Yevstigneyev, head of the 15th Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense until 1992.  At that time, this directorate was the military arm of Russia’s biological weapons program.  He was the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Defense’s NBC Defense Directorate.  The interviewer is questioning Yevstigneyev about the 1979 anthrax incident in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), which is now widely known to have been the result of an accidental release of anthrax spores from a military production facility there.  At that time, the Sverdlovsk facility was producing and stockpiling scores of tons of anthrax biological weapon formulation annually.  Yevstingeyev describes the weaponized anthrax being developed at Sverdlovsk at that time as possibly being 100% lethal: 

Interviewer:  Do you claim, as before, that in 1979 on the Sverdlovsk-19 military base, no explosions of munitions with a “biological” filling nor massive deaths occurred?

 

Yevstigneyev:  People who don’t know much about bacteriology might be able to believe the newspaper stories (which, by the way, is indeed happening now).  The professionals simply laugh.

 

International experts found four different strains (of the virus culture—author’s note) of anthrax.  Four different bacteria!  Different, you understand?  If a bomb exploded, would there really be four strains?  How can you explain that people fell ill 50 kilometers away, but on the military base, where this explosion supposedly occurred, no one fell ill?  Next door to the base is a tank division—two fatal cases…Believe me, if this was a single military release, two or three days and everyone would be finished! 

Additionally, Peter Burgasov, former Chief Sanitary Physician of the Soviet Union and a researcher in the biological weapons program, became the first official in the program to admit to the development and testing of weaponized smallpox in a November 2001 interview in the Russian newspaper “Courier.”  Burgasov describes a 1970’s test of a smallpox weapon on Vozrazhdenie (Rebirth) Island, a biological testing site in the Aral Sea: 

BURGASOV:  On Vozrazhdenie Island in the Aral Sea, the strongest recipes of smallpox were tested.  Suddenly I was informed that there were mysterious cases of mortalities in Aralsk.  A research ship of the Aral fleet came 15 km away from the island (it was forbidden to come any closer than 40 km).  The lab technician of this ship took samples of plankton twice a day from the top deck.  The smallpox formulation – 400 g of which was exploded on the island – “got her” and she became infected.  After returning home to Aralsk, she infected several people including children.  All of them died.  I suspected the reason for this and called the Chief of General Staff of Ministry of Defense and requested to forbid the stop of the Alma-Ata – Moscow train in Aralsk.  As a result, the epidemic around the country was prevented.  I called Andropov, who at that time was Chief of KGB, and informed him of the exclusive recipe of smallpox obtained on Vozrazhdenie Island.   

This is a real biological weapon! The minimum radius of contamination was 15 km.  One could imagine what would have happened if instead of one lab technician, it was 100-200 individuals.  Also, in Manchuria in 1912, 110,000 people died of smallpox at one time. 

The above can be considered evidence that a new assessment of the biological weapons and defense capabilities of the former Soviet republics is long overdue.