Week 15 Preparedness Blog: Soviet Union Bioterrorism Program 1973 to 1992

Week 15 - May 27, 2018

by David Culp, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, Illinois Public Health Association

Soviet Union Bioterrorism Program 1973 -1992

In April 1979, over 100 deaths occurred from anthrax near Sverdlovsk, a major Russian military production facility since the days of World War Two. The Soviet Union blamed the anthrax deaths on contaminated meat; in the early 1990’s, I attended a presentation at USAMRIID from Harvard Scientist Mathew Meselson emphatically supporting Soviet assertions. Meselson was a longtime advocate of banning biological and chemical agents of war who had worked with Henry Kissinger to convince Nixon to sign the United States biological and chemical warfare ban in 1969. Despite Soviet claims, the US intelligence community was concerned there was an anthrax production facility in Sverdlovsk and equally alarmed there were additional bioweapons facilities present in the Soviet Union and additional biological agents in production. The Soviet anthrax threat was considered serious enough that USAMRIID’s Bacteriology Division, which had previously been entirely focused on Legionella research; was in one week completely switched to Anthrax research after Sverdlovsk. While in graduate school at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine one of my physician instructors related to me a conversation he had with Kissinger in the immediate aftermath of the Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak; in which Kissinger indicated no doubt the outbreak was due to an accident associated with Soviet bioweapons development.

At its height, Biopreparat consisted of over fifty separate research, development and production facilities secretly scattered across the Soviet Union employing more than 40,000 workers and scientists. The following nineteen biological agents were studied by Biopreparat: Argentinian Hemorrhagic Fever, Bolivian Hemorrhagic Fever, Avian Influenza, Chikungunya Virus, Dengue Fever Virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus, Hantavirus, Lassa Fever Virus, Melioidosis, Newcastle Disease, Plague, Potato Blight, Psittacosis, Ricin Toxin, Rift Valley Fever Virus, Rinderpest, Typhus, Western Equine Encephalitis Virus and Yellow Fever Virus. Biopreparat weaponized thirteen biological agents: Smallpox, Anthrax, Plague, Botulinum Toxin, Brucellosis, Glanders, Q-Fever, Staphylococcal Enterotoxin B, Tularemia, Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis Virus, Marburg Virus, Wheat Stem Rust and Rice Blast. The Soviet Union bioweapons program had a particularly heavy emphasis on Smallpox. Smallpox had been eradicated by 1980 and cultures were stored in only two locations: at CDC in the United States and at Ivanovsky Institute in the Soviet Union. However, the Soviets would utilize their cultures to initiate research and development programs as well as production facilities for smallpox within Biopreparat. The smallpox genome was DNA sequenced and extensively studied for ability to insert virulence factors from other microbial pathogens into the smallpox genome to enhance its capacity to infect and kill.

As Phase I of the Soviet program, from the 1920’s thru creation of Biopreparat in 1973, focused on basic microbiological development and analysis; Phase II (post Biopreparat creation) emphasized utilization of modern molecular biological and genetic engineering techniques to increase infectivity and virulence of biological agents. Biopreparat research explored development of antibiotic resistant bacterial pathogens and strains of bacteria and viruses possessing capabilities to suppress human immune system responses. One of the most scientifically ingenuous and insidious initiatives of Soviet research was attempts to develop chimeras: combining strains of two more microbial pathogens into one super organism possessing all the virulence traits of its microbial components. Biopreparat programs also studied possibilities of transforming typically non-pathogenic or solely opportunistic microbes into pathogenic microorganisms. Additionally, peptides were researched for their ability to bring about psychogenic or neurogenic effects on their victims.

The Soviet Union accompanied Biopreparat with a massive disinformation apparatus designed to provide deniability and deflection of existence of a Soviet biological weapons program. Soviet information services indicated all Biopreparat facilities were for civilian projects or for military defense projects. Layers of cover stories were developed for each Biopreparat facility, building and item of equipment with an outwardly “open story” that the facility was strictly for non-military industrial production; if closer examination and investigation of the facility occurred a “secret story” was put forth indicating work was only for military defense purposes.. All waste materials were either destroyed or combined with civilian projects waste to mask their true origin. However, two major defectors from Biopreparat: senior scientist Vladimir Pasechnik to Great Britain in 1989 and deputy director Ken Alibek to United States in 1992 provided tremendous insight on Soviet bioweapons development scope, direction and intent at the same time the Soviet Union was struggling to survive. With the downfall of the Soviet Union Biopreparat would be dramatically downsized and subsequently officially disbanded in 1992 by Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. Ironically, Yeltsin was the lead Communist party official involved in covering up the Sverdlovsk anthrax incident in 1979. 


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