Two leading Russian biological weapons scientists presented their inside view of the Soviet bioweapons program at a March 29th panel sponsored by the George Mason University Biodefense Program. Dr. Guennady Lepioshkin, who headed the Anthrax production plant at Stepnogorsk in Kazakhstan, and GMU Professor Sergey Popov, who headed projects at the Vector Institute and other laboratories in Obolensk, Russia, presented candid personal accounts of life as bioweapons researchers. Beyond their individual tales, the session offered several lessons that remain relevant to the modern discussion of biosecurity – cautionary tales about the publication of dual use research and the destructive potential of synthetic biology.
Life in Biopreparat
Dr. Lepioshkin graduated as a military microbiologist in 1969. In that era, the medical curriculum presented microbiology as a tool to help treat the wounded and disinfect contaminated areas, rather than as an offensive weapon. Dr. Popov echoed this account, describing the three “legends” of the illicit Biopreparat, which continued bioweapons work after the ratification of the Biological Weapons Convention. The public was told only of research for medical advances or biotechnology, while most scientists were told a second tale, of the need to study pathogens to prepare countermeasures against biological attacks. The truth was that the Soviet program was actively enhancing pathogens’ virulence and manufacturing them in large quantities for potential use as offensive bioweapons.
President Nixon’s 1969 decision to renounce the use of biological weapons was widely viewed as a bluff within the USSR; they believed that the US bioweapons research continued under the cover of universities and research institutions. This belief, along with the knowledge that the Russian military was more likely to sponsor work on advanced bioweapons than more basic biomedical research, was enough to push the moral issues surrounding the work to the side.
At the same time, the closed nature of the work invited fraud and corruption. With little accountability, some scientists fabricated results or plagiarized ideas that had been published in recent journals smuggled in from the West. Meanwhile, there were inevitably accidents in which researchers or civilians were infected with bioweapons, none of which were revealed to the public. Despite these challenges, some researchers worked hard in pursuit of a cause they believed to be just, only to face even greater personal challenges when the collapse of the Soviet Union abruptly discontinued their bioweapons research.
Both scientists described tough times that fell upon researchers with dangerous expertise in the aftermath of the Cold War. Dr. Lepioshkin, who now works on vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and environmental monitoring, describes some of the challenges that scientists faced in attempting to re-tool their efforts for civilian purposes. Beyond the lack of funding, facilities and expertise were not necessarily suited for manufacturing therapeutics. The challenging environment led to a nightmare scenario for proliferation of biological weapons expertise; Dr. Popov quipped that, by 1993, everyone had become either a criminal or a salesman just to earn their livelihood.
Lessons for Today
Dr. Popov was a pioneer in the field that has become synthetic biology; in his day, it took a team of 50 researchers to synthesize a 100 base pair fragment of DNA, while today’s researchers can obtain similar products for a couple of dollars, delivered overnight from a variety of commercial providers. The destructive potential of the technology was limited only by the researchers’ ability to determine what sequences to create. For example, a modified surrogate for the Smallpox virus created by the Soviet Union was able to infect previously immunized animals and transformed the normally minor infection into a highly lethal autoimmune disease.
Unlike with nuclear technology, the West did not treat biomedical research as classified and sensitive information. Dr. Popov admitted that his program took advantage of published research on pathogens to help advance their weapons development. He was later sent to England to learn more advanced techniques for DNA synthesis from more advanced British researchers.
These frank admissions illustrate the dangers that dual use research can pose. There is tremendous potential for biomedical research to benefit humankind; both researchers noted that even the illicit bioweapons program led to advances in vaccine development. The challenge for the future is to harness that potential without aiding those who would abuse it.