Sergei Popov today works in the United States, researching therapies to protect
people against biological weapons and natural diseases. But for nearly 20
years, he was one of the Soviet Union's top scientists in the development of
novel, and terrifying, biological agents.
Here, he talks with NOVA producer Kirk Wolfinger.
NOVA: What would it take for terrorists to use biological weapons effectively?
Popov: Well, it certainly takes a lot of experience, and it requires
sophisticated equipment. In my opinion the most important thing is knowledge—knowledge of how to make a specific biological agent, what is required to
provide enough viability to that agent, and how to use that agent. All that was
the subject of very intensive research in the Soviet Union.
NOVA: Can you describe the level of secrecy in the biological weapons program
in the Soviet system?
"Some people knew just the so-called "closed legend."
Popov: It was essentially top secret research, one of the most secret in the
Soviet society. [There were] multiple levels of secrecy—so that some people
didn't know anything about the true direction of research. Some people knew
just the so-called "closed legend," which was specially prepared information
for those people and for the outside world.
For people involved in real BW research, information also was at different
levels of security. Some people knew about the true directions of research and
some people got access to government information and top secrets.
NOVA: Did you have the big picture, or was that one grade above you?
Popov: Well, I didn't know the whole picture. I didn't know the scope of
research, but I had some indirect knowledge. And I realized that it was a huge,
huge program which involved dozens of different institutions and
At my level, I knew what was the true purpose of the research, but sometimes I
didn't know the final results of my work.
Creating "superbugs"NOVA: What was your specialty? What was the nature of your research?
Popov: Initially I was involved in the production of synthetic genes. That
means we created in tubes, in vitro, [gene] constructs that did not exist in
nature. The hope was, making those constructs, it would be possible to provide
bacterial agents and viruses completely new properties which they did not have
in natural conditions. So, for example, a virus could produce something
absolutely difficult to imagine in natural circumstances, like peptides which
destroy the immune system in a very special way.
"Imagine a new weapon which is difficult to diagnose initially and
then which is impossible to treat with conventional antibiotics."
NOVA: What was your most successful work?
Popov: My most successful research was the finding that a bacteria called
Legionella could be modified in such a way that it could induce severe
nervous system disease. And the symptoms of nervous disorders [similar to those
of multiple sclerosis] would appear several days after the bacterial disease
was completely "cured." So there would be no bacterial agent, but symptoms—new and unusual symptoms—would appear several days later.
NOVA: What would be the point of that?
Popov: Imagine a new weapon which is difficult to diagnose initially and then
which is impossible to treat with conventional antibiotics. That would be [a
good weapon] from the point of view of [masking] who originated the
NOVA: But why invent such things? Weren't there already in existence plenty of
traditional agents—anthrax, plague, botulinum toxin—in their natural
state that were deadly enough?
Popov: Certainly, there were. They are deadly enough. But the idea was that a
new weapon has to have new and unusual properties, difficult to recognize,
difficult to treat. And finally, it has to be a more deadly weapon. Essentially
I arranged the research towards more virulent agents causing more death and
more pathological symptoms.
"It was possible to create plague microbe resistant to almost 10
antibiotics, an anthrax strain which was resistant to existing
NOVA: What was Project Bonfire?
Popov: Essentially Bonfire dealt with antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria,
and it was quite successful. It was found that it was possible to create, say,
plague microbe resistant to almost 10 antibiotics. And a recombinant strain of
anthrax had resistance to 10 different antibiotics.
In addition, some research resulted in an anthrax strain which was resistant to
existing vaccine, and that seems to me even more dangerous. So, essentially, it
is impossible to treat that kind of strain.
NOVA: Can you describe the Hunter Program?
Popov: I didn't really work on the Hunter Program, but I know the basic
directions of this research. Essentially, whole genomes of different viruses
were being combined together to produce completely new hybrid viruses. They
wanted to combine two microorganisms in one, say, a combination of
encephalomyelitis virus and smallpox.
NOVA: What would be the advantage of that?
Popov: There could be numerous advantages. First of all, it is a completely
artificial agent with new symptoms, probably with no known ways to treat it.
Essentially, the major feature would be a kind of surprise effect. Nobody would
recognize it. Nobody would know how to deal with it. But nobody could predict
the result of that kind of genetic manipulation.
NOVA: How far did they get?
"A double agent, like plague and encephalomyelitis virus, could be
combined in one."
Popov: It is very difficult to say definitely. I would say that they
successfully produced several cell combinations of different viruses. And they
also continued research in terms of putting certain viruses inside bacterial
cells—so that a double agent, like plague and encephalomyelitis virus, could
be combined in one.
NOVA: How would that kind of "superbug" work?
Popov: Imagine a bacterial agent which contains inside its cells a virus. The
virus stays silent until the bacterial cells get treated. So, if the bacterial
disease gets recognized and treated with an antibiotic, there would be a
release of virus. After the initial bacterial disease was completely cured,
there would be an outbreak of a viral disease on top of this.
NOVA: What would be a good example of that?
Popov: A good example would be plague bacteria, which is relatively easy to
treat with antibiotics, and viral encephalomyelitis inside. So, in case of
biological attack, people would be treated against plague, and after that they
would be sick with this viral disease of choice.
It could be encephalomyelitis. It could be smallpox. It could be ebola. Those
viruses were on the list of potential agents.
A vast, uncontrollable systemNOVA: Do you think this kind of work is continuing?
Popov: I have no direct information, but I think that it may still continue—taking into account the existence of numerous Ministry of Defense facilities.
We know essentially nothing about what is going on in those facilities, and as
far as I know, none of them has been closed or destroyed.
"We know essentially nothing about what is going on in those
NOVA: Are you concerned that a lot of your former colleagues have gone other
places and could be working for people who don't have the best
Popov: Certainly, it is a possibility. Some of my former colleagues worked in
some Eastern countries. But I have no direct information right now how many of
them stayed, and what kind of information they provided for those countries.
But, certainly, it took place previously, and it could happen in the
NOVA: Does it concern you?
Popov: Yes, most certainly it does concern me, but I have no way to control
these people—that kind of event.
NOVA: How big was the system that you were working in? How aggressively did
the former Soviet Union pursue biological weapons?
"It was a very extensive effort which involved thousands and
thousands of people."
Popov: It was a very extensive effort which involved thousands and thousands of
people. As an example, the Siberian facility at Vector employed at least
several thousand scientists, and among them, I would say, several hundred
And that facility wasn't alone. There were many more different facilities in
the Biopreparat system and also in the Ministry of Defense system.
NOVA: Why so big? Why so aggressive?
Popov: I don't know the answer. But they definitely wanted to be the best. It
was an attempt to get some kind of military advantage in this field—to gain
advantage so that nobody would be stronger and nobody would be better
A reluctant warriorNOVA: Did you agree with this mission?
Popov: No, not really. I can say that I've never believed in these kinds of
weapons. I've never believed that these weapons would be used in any
circumstances. Essentially, I was very skeptical about the final results of my
work, but I had no choice in my career. That was the only way I could survive
under those circumstances.
"I've never believed in these kinds of weapons."
NOVA: What did you think was going on with BW development in the United
States? What were you told?
Popov: Well, of course, we didn't know what was going on in the United States.
But we had always been told that the United States aggressively developed their
own BW program and that our purpose was to catch up. So that was an official
goal of our research: to create protection against American weapons and to
create weapons which would be better and stronger than America's.
NOVA: When did you begin to have doubts about this?
Popov: Well, I started to doubt it after I visited Britain. I was among few
people who had that kind of opportunity—to get outside and see with my own
eyes how people lived in the western world and how friendly they were and how
they did research.
"I couldn't imagine something like this could be developed in the
So I got the impression that nothing serious in terms of BW development was
going on in Britain or in America. I didn't have information to be certain, but
I was so impressed with the western style of life that I couldn't imagine
something like this could be developed in the West.
NOVA: When did you decide that you were going to leave—to defect?
Popov: It was 1992, and everything around me collapsed at that time. The
scientific research was impossible to carry on. Salaries hadn't been paid.
There was no food in shops. It was a very depressing time in spite of all the
changes towards democracy. Essentially, the whole country had been looted by a
few people in power, and nobody cared about people like me.
But, most importantly, I realized that I wasted my time and my effort doing
this research, and I didn't want to continue anymore. So that is why I decided
I had to do something in my life to turn it around.
"They certainly didn't want to give me up. They still want me
NOVA: Was it easy for you to defect?
Popov: Well, all the previous systems which kept people inside the country
didn't work anymore. So it was relatively easy to get outside. But [once I had
left], they demanded me to go back to Russia, and I decided, "I won't go
NOVA: So, you were still a valuable property to the Russian government? They
didn't want to give you up?
Popov: No, they certainly didn't want to give me up. They still want me back.
I was a person on the so-called "first list." Those persons are under special
control, under special surveillance. But nobody was interested in my past in
this country for many years.
A new start in AmericaNOVA: Tell me that story. When you came over, how quickly did the U.S.
government seize upon the fact that they had a very valuable scientist in their
Popov: I came to the United States in April '92 to do research in immunology
and later in pharmacology in Dallas at the Texas University Medical Center. And
I spent eight years peacefully doing research in this field, and I was so happy
doing it compared to what I had done in Russia.
It was only after eight years that some people debriefed me. And they were
mainly concerned about the spread of biological weapons from four former
Russian facilities, so they really didn't touch on my research in the
NOVA: Were you surprised that nobody looked into your past and figured out who
you were and what you had been working on?
"I didn't want even to think anymore about what I did in
Popov: Well, I wasn't really surprised. I was pleased, because I didn't want
even to think anymore about what I did in Russia. I was really happy doing
peaceful, really interesting research in this country.
NOVA: When did someone finally approach you about your past?
Popov: Essentially, I found a connection to Ken Alibek here in this company
[Advanced Biosystems, Inc., where both Popov and Alibek now work]. And I
decided to move from Dallas to ABS.
NOVA: And then you were finally debriefed?
Popov: Yes, then I finally was debriefed because I exposed myself at that
NOVA: And were people fascinated by what you told them?
Popov: Yes, I think so. Ken Alibek already had described these directions of
research in his book, Biohazard. But I know details about how it has
been done and what has been done.
NOVA: Just one final question. What are you working on today, and how do you
feel about it?
"Now I am confident I am on the right track."
Popov: Today I'm doing something which is completely opposite to what I did in
my past. Essentially, I'm trying to find treatments for many different
bacterial and viral diseases by boosting human innate immune response.
It is very difficult to treat different diseases. We decided to find ways to
induce so-called "unspecific immunity," which would be efficient in protecting
people against quite a big range of different diseases.
The mechanic of this protection is built inside our body. There are natural
proteins which induce human immunity so that people—healthy individuals—do not get sick as often as immunocompromised individuals, and that is a
reflection of the capacity of the immune system. We want to increase that
capacity so that we won't need, say, specific treatments for many, many
So my research right now is completely peaceful and directed towards a
completely different purpose. It is directed against biological threats—to
protect people from infectious diseases.
NOVA: Does that make you feel better?
Popov: I feel much, much better right now. Now I am confident I am on the right
track, and I'm doing what I had wanted to do many, many years ago.