plague war
Interview: Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov
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Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov was the former First Deputy Director of Biopreparat from 1988 to 1992. Biopreparat was the Soviet Union's biological weapons program. Alibekov defected from the Soviet Union and moved to Washington, DC in 1992.

During the process of production in the Soviet Union's program, how many tons of biological warfare agents were storehoused?

The Soviet Union has two main directorates responsible for developing and manufacturing biological weapons. Biological weapons were stored at the Minister of Defense facilities. For example, [the] Kirov facility was responsible for storing Plague, about 20 tons of Plague. The Zagorsk facility (now it's Sergiev Posad) was responsible for storing smallpox biological weapons, about 20 tons as well. And the Ekaterinburg facility (at that time Sverdlovsk) was responsible for continuous manufacturing [of] anthrax biological weapons. The amount of this weapon produced was hundreds of tons.

The DoD concluded recently that the biological warfare threat was  one area in which the US has found itself to be the most vulnerable. This was said repeatedly at a symposium on the subject  held in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 1998. More than 2,000 delegates from 70 countries were present, many of them military officers. What were the total amount of biological weapons agents storehoused?

Nobody calculated these weapons in such a way. The problem was that some weapons were stockpiled and some weapons were just prepared for stockpiling. The amount of weapons stored was dozens or even hundreds of tons. There were several facilities there that were considered mobilization capacities. They could manufacture biological weapons in case of getting a special order.

If you have the production facilities, the technology and the knowledge, do you need to storehouse biological weaponry? How does it differ from nuclear or chemical weapons?

[It] depend[s] on what kind of offensive biological concept one or another country has. If a given country wants to use biological weapons immediately in any war or military conflict, it would store biological weapons. Some countries can develop production techniques, can have mobilization capacities, and they can start manufacturing biological weapons in case of getting orders.

But in Russia, with production facilities still existing, would they have to stockpile weapons? If at some point in the future they wanted to use agents, how quickly could they produce the agents for use?

First of all, I don't believe that Russia has biological weapons stockpiled. These weapons were destroyed somewhere at the end of 80s. But if Russia does have a desire to start manufacturing biological weapons, it would take no more than two to three months to start this activity again.

Why would it be so short a period of time?

Russia has at least four military facilities that could be used for manufacturing biological weapons. These facilities have not been opened for any visits. These facilities could be considered top secret offensive facilities and they have the capability to manufacture biological weapons. In addition to these facilities, Russia continues [running] several facilities, so-called Biopreparat facilities. They were considered mobilization capacities. And we know that Russia stores all production documentation for manufacturing biological weapons. It wouldn't be a big problem to start this production activity if there is desire or if there is an order.

Which U.S. cities were targeted, as far as you know, back in the days when the Soviets had these weapons stockpiled?

Biological weapons were considered strategic weapons. The targets ... in the United States, [would be] large cities, large military bases--these type of facilities ... we can assume New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago--these type of cities.

What kind of agents were thought of as useful in this situation?

According to the Soviet Union's philosophy ... smallpox, plague and anthrax were considered strategic operational biological weapons. In future wars, if Marburg was finished, Marburg was to be used as a strategic weapon. But what was complete and ready for application were the smallpox biological weapons, plague biological weapons and anthrax biological weapons.

If, for instance, New York City had become a target, what would have been the expected mortality rates with the use of biological weaponry?

In this case, it's very easy to calculate. This work was done many years ago by an American scientist. According to this calculation, about 50 kilos of anthrax biological weapon that covers a territory with the population of about 500,000 people, would cause 100,000 deaths. I calculated, with the data we had in Sverdlovsk when the accident occurred and the amount of people dead was about 100 people, between 65-100 people. But the amount of anthrax agent released in the city of Sverdlovsk was no more than 100 grams. In this case, [with] the efficiency of these weapons, if a sufficient amount of this weapon was used, mortality rate would be hundred of thousands of people.

In New York City, with millions of people, what would one expect to see?

Depending on the type of weapons, depending on the mode of applying, but if we use the worst case scenario, probably half the population. If the entire territory of New York City was covered with sufficient amount of this weapon, the amount of people dead would be millions.

What biological agents were worked on at the time that you were involved with the program?

The completely finished and accomplished biological weapons were as follows: smallpox biological weapon, then plague biological weapon, anthrax biological weapon, Venezuelan equine encephalitis biological weapon, tularemia biological weapon, brucellosis biological weapon, and some others. In the 70s and beginning of 80s the Soviet Union started developing new biological weapons--Marburg infection biological weapon, Ebola infection biological weapon, Machupo infection, [or] Bolivian hemorrhagic biological weapon, and some others.

Why smallpox? How important was that considered to be as a biological weapon?

Yes, it's a good question, because smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980. And just immediately after, the Soviet Union government realized that nobody would have defense in the future against this agent, because it was declared [that] there was no necessity to vaccinate people any more. This weapon became one of the most important weapons, because the entire population of the Earth became absolutely vulnerable to this agent and to this weapon ... smallpox is very contagious. A relatively high mortality rate: 35-40%. And if the entire population of the Earth doesn't have immunity against this agent, possible consequences after applying these weapons would be horrible.

How could that even be considered as a weapon, with the reality of the epidemics that could occur and could get back to harm your own people?

First of all, when we are talking about strategic weapons, strategic weapons would never be used close to the territory of the country that is going to apply these weapons. Second, smallpox is very contagious. It's transmittable from person to person. Of course, the first effect would be from so-called primary aerosols, immediately after aerosolization. Then people who have been infected would start infecting other people. We know that smallpox is a very transmittable, contagious disease and it can cause epidemics or even pandemics. Smallpox is very efficient weapon because it could cause a lot of infected and dead people.

Was it assumed that before the weapon would be used, the Russian people would be vaccinated to protect them against blowback from people who traveled with it?

In my opinion, nobody cared what would happen to the Russians, because this weapon would be used just in case of, according to the Soviet Union's concept, a total war. And when we're talking about total war, of course, nobody would considered the several hundred thousands of dead Russians.

Why was the smallpox transferred from the Ivanovsky Institute in Moscow down to Vector in Koltsovo?

There was, according to the World Health Organization's decision, just two repositories: one of them in the city of Atlanta, CDC [Center for Disease Control], and another one in the city of Moscow, Ivanovsky Institute. But in the late 80s, the Soviet Union had a desire to relocate these stocks from Ivanovsky to Vector, to cover offensive biological works, because even at that time, officially Vector couldn't conduct any work with smallpox. But in reality, [they] did. At least, for that period of time, transferring smallpox stocks from Ivanovsky Institute to Vector could cover some of these works.

The main reason that it was transferred was so that it could be used in further research on biological weaponry?

At least at that time. In the beginning of 90s, when I was the first deputy chief of Biopreparat, I had several visits to the minister of health, just asking to relocate the stocks from Ivanovsky Institute to the Vector. The main reason was to develop a cover story for conducting [official] biological work at the Vector facility.

Why was research done to genetically alter smallpox?

Why was it necessary to develop a 100-megaton bomb, when the United States and the Soviet Union had 10-, 20-, 50-megaton bombs? This was just a logic of developing weapons. You know? If you've got a weapon, your next step [is] to develop a more sophisticated weapon.

Smallpox is a fine weapon. But it could be more fine, just by adding some foreign genes. In this case ... I am asking the scientific community here in the United States, in the world, just watch such works very carefully, because in many cases, these works are conducted in ... I call them dark zones. We cannot say when we look at one another's work, what is the real purpose of this work. This could be used for developing new agents, for developing new weapons. This is a very sensitive area and situation. We need to be very careful and cautious.

What are dark zones?

I call the area [a dark zone] when the result obtained could be used for defensive purposes and could be used for offensive purposes. Let's analyze this situation: the genetic alteration of vaccinia [cowpox] virus. In many cases, you would never find any publication about genetic alteration of smallpox virus, because when we conduct the work with smallpox virus, it's very dangerous and you need to explain why you are genetically altering such virus. ... [however] smallpox virus (variola major) and vaccinia virus are very close genetically. When you conduct genetic engineering work with a vaccinia virus, the result of such a work would be applied to variola major. When we conduct this work, we cannot say what could be the real purpose or real result of this work. But some results obtained when you conduct work with vaccinia virus, could be applied for smallpox virus.

Was there ever a fear, during the time that you were there, that the U.S. was going to discover the program and therefore bring pressure against the Soviet government?

Somewhere in 1986-1987, we started feeling some pressure. We could understand what was the primary source for this pressure. We were asked by the government of the Soviet Union to analyze whether or not it would be possible to open some facilities [without] revealing the real purposes of these facilities. We conducted this work for several years. And a lot of scientists, a lot of leaders didn't believe it would be possible to open, because these facilities were clearly offensive facilities. But in 1989, we started feeling severe pressure from the United States and Great Britain. We were forced to open our facilities because in 1989, the United States and Great Britain realized that the Soviet Union had a very sophisticated and powerful offensive program. When these countries started pressuring the Soviet Union very hard, it was a kind of starting point for the destruction, for the dismantling of this program.

What do you think the ramifications are of the long-term program that did exist--the amount of material and the amount of knowledge that was created?

The problem now is [that] practically all the countries in the world understand that biological weapons are a very serious threat ... a lot of countries are trying to develop biological weapons, and for these countries, the Soviet Union was some kind of role model for developing these weapons, because the Soviet Union was able to develop one of the most powerful and sophisticated programs in the world. A lot of countries are following the Soviet Union's program. I strongly believe that some Asian countries, Arabic countries ... are trying to develop their own offensive program. In my opinion, for them, this country (I mean the Soviet Union) was some kind of example, some kind of role model for these programs' development.

Besides being a role model, what about the issue of actual information and/or samples from the stockpiles that existed? Should we also fear the transfer of knowledge and/or actual agents?

I'm very doubtful that the Russian government would sell any equipment (I mean sophisticated equipment), technologies, or strains to any other country. Thousands of scientists who were involved in developing biological weapons are now under-employed and unemployed, and this is the biggest threat. If you are under-employed and unemployed, in some cases, you will try to sell your knowledge, your expertise to people or to countries that are interested in such weapons.

In 1991, what were your impressions when you came and toured the U.S. facilities of what had once been an offensive program?

First of all, before I came, I strongly believed that this country [U.S.] had such a program. But when I came and I saw the abandoned facilities, and I knew that Soviet Union intelligence services didn't have any information regarding any other facilities but these ones. When I saw that everything was abandoned, of course, for me it was great that this country didn't have such a program any more.

When you went back to the Soviet Union, is that what you reported?

When I came back, and when I was asked to prepare my personal report about this program's existence, I said, "No" because I didn't believe that this country had such a program.

And then what happened?

... within two weeks I resigned commission and because I was a colonel of [Russian] army, in January of 1992, I resigned from the Russian army. And in February, I left all my scientific and administrative positions and quit.

You were asked to lie about what you saw?

I'll give you this example. General Yevstigneyev, who was in charge of this 15th Directorate, and a part of our visiting group formed by the 15th Directorate, said directly to his subordinates, "If you don't find any evidence that could be considered this country offensive program existence, you'll be fired."

Where is he today?

He was a major general. Now he's lieutenant general. He has received a promotion, and now he's in charge of first deputy chief of the Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Directorate of the Minister of Defense. All of the people who were responsible for research and developing and manufacturing such weapons, are now in that place. Former colonels became generals and they continue managing these facilities and enterprises.

The fact that the general, who told you to lie or else you would lose your job, is now in charge of the entire program in the Soviet Union--is that not somewhat worrisome?

That's what I say all the time. Just take a look at Russia ... the country itself and this program. The people who were in charge of this program continue working in this area. All the colonels who were in charge of these facilities became generals. All the documentation is stored at some places to manufacture biological weapons. All these facilities are still top secret facilities. And in my opinion, until Russia opens these facilities and reveals everything regarding this program, we cannot believe this country.

Why do you think they will not open these facilities?

Because they conduct work in this area. Until we see these facilities, we cannot say what kind of capability this country does have. I am saying (and maybe it would be very important to say directly to Russians): Open these facilities. I would be glad just to visit these facilities in a group of visitors from the United States and international community. And we'll be able to say what is the real activity of these facilities ... if we see these facilities inside, we can say whether or not they conduct offensive work, and what kind of offensive work.

How is a bio-agent created and turned into a weaponized dust form? How easy is it to create a weaponized biological agent?

It's a long technological process. If we are talking about sophisticated weapons, it's quite difficult. If we are talking about genetically altered agents, it's quite difficult. Regular ordinary terrorists wouldn't do this and cannot do this. But if we are talking about some primitive forms of biological weapons capable [of] kill[ing] thousands of people, [this is] not very difficult.

How would it be done?

A lot of ways. For each weapon, a technique to manufacture would be different. In many cases, we are talking about culture collections, just how to get this bacteria or viruses from culture collections. In many cases, unfortunately, [it is] not a necessity. A lot of agents can be isolated from nature. And if one or another person, one or another group has knowledge how to do this work, how to transform bacteria and viruses into weapons, even primitive weapons, they could do this without any significant difficulties.

Telling me just the basics, what do you have to do?

This group has to know several main points and techniques: how to isolate agent, how to cultivate it, how to concentrate, how to dry, how to mill, and how to aerosolize. If they know this, it wouldn't be a problem.

If a terrorist group were to get material (in the case of the table top exercise that was in March), a smallpox and Marburg virus, and they dispersed it on the border of the U.S. and Mexico, down in the El Paso area, what would you assume the effects would be from some operation like that?

In this case, I wouldn't assume any significant damage. The problem with biological weapons [is that] you need to have a very concentrated agent to cover large territories. But if terrorist groups uses biological agents, they would find more vulnerable targets, in my opinion. What kind of targets? Mostly in the cities--metro systems, administrative buildings, commercial buildings, stadiums, shopping malls. These type of places would be the most vulnerable to biological terrorist act.

Worst case scenario, what could happen?

Just to be scientifically correct, let me give you an example. Some[time] in the 60s here in the United States, and in the 80s in the Soviet Union, there were so-called [modern] experiments using some non-pathogenic bacteria spread in some metro systems. After this, calculations were completed. What we would see, for example, in case of applying a small amount of some agents in metro systems, up to 10,000 infected and dead people. And we can give many more examples, but you know, this is a real capability of biological weapons.

If they had been infectious viruses?

If they had been infectious viruses, the amount of people infected and dead would average dozens of thousands.

How much of a concern is this? Is this just a group of old Cold War warriors that are worried about the next thing. It seems that we are safe from a nuclear war now that the Cold War is over.

No. Let's analyze the logic of weapons development, the history of weapons development ... the problem with biological weapons [is that] they are very complex. But any weapon that has been developed eventually was used in terrorist attacks. Until recently, we hadn't seen anything with applying chemical weapons, but we've seen it recently. Now we can say, if we follow this logic, biological agents, biological weapons could be used in the future. In my opinion, that's not a matter of if; that's a matter of when.

What are the ramifications of this type of weapon being used on a society?

As I said before, the logic of developing weapons and, eventually us[ing] these weapons in terrorist acts, then biological weapons could be undetected. A person or group of people who use it can escape from a place of appl[ication], even from a country of application, undetected. In my opinion, biological agents and biological weapons are very terrifying weapons ... we don't have a capability to detect these weapons before they're applied, before they're used. They're very attractive for possible application, they're not very expensive and [they're] relatively easy to manufacture.

What would happen to New York City, for instance, if a smallpox attack happened?

It might be a full destruction of any vital activity. A lot of dead people. Full paralysis of medical system. Huge panic. People would try to escape from the city. And because they're contagious, they would form new foci of epidemics around. We would see a fast developing epidemic.

Could the Aum Shinrikyo have been successful in the use of biological weapons? How close did they come and what are the effects of the existence of such a group and what they tried to do?

In my opinion, ... it was just a matter of time that this group (I mean Aum Shinrikyo group) [became] successful. Because after each application you learn what was done incorrectly. Eventually you come to a right decision [about] how to apply effectively. For example, if this knowledge becomes common knowledge for some other groups, they would study what was done incorrectly. For them it was a new starting point, because they wouldn't do anything that was done incorrectly by Aum Shinrikyo ... year by year, these groups would get more information [on] how to use these weapons more effectively.

The problem is that the 21st century is the century of information technologies and biotechnology. More people and more countries will get knowledge by technology. But when a level of general biotechnology becomes high, it's [said] that the level of so-called military biotechnology is high as well. More people would know how to manufacture, how to develop and manufacture biological devices, biological weapons. And this situation will be changing very seriously in the future.

Was the Aum Shinrikyo group a wake-up call for us? What was the effect of their existence?

We need to stop a discussion whether or not biological weapons are efficient or inefficient. They're efficient. It's clear. And if we start analyzing what can be done and what we need to do to fight these weapons, we would see very serious consequences in the future. We need to develop a national program on how to develop protection against biological weapons, against biological terrorist acts. We have a lot of scientists who have a good knowledge of how to develop protection against biological weapons. Even now we can say that it would be possible to develop a comprehensive bio-defense. We are capable now. At least this country is capable to make these weapons useless. We need to choose the right directions, and we need to make right decisions.

So what's the first thing that needs to be done?

In my opinion, we need to stop thinking that biological weapons are very terrifying and that we can't find any protection. We can't forget the ultimate objective ... when we talk about bio-defense ... to save peoples' lives ... we need to start developing medical defense, because medical defense is able to protect people against biological weapons. If we understand that not just vaccines are capable to protect people, because in many cases it's impossible to vaccinate the entire population of the country against all possible agents. It's absolutely impossible. But there are some approaches, and these approaches could be used for developing medical defense against biological weapons.

Can you explain what is that defense? What do we need to do? Is it storehouse vaccines?

For now, vaccines [are] a temporary solution. But for the military, maybe it's a good solution. But even for the military, I don't believe it's a comprehensive solution. We need to start thinking [about] using some different ways, because there is our own so-called protection system, immune system. If we are able to boost our immune system, non-specific immune system, that's the most appropriate and the only way to develop protection. If we are able to develop special protective preparations, so-called pre-exposure, post-exposure preparations, treatment regimens based on boosting non-specific immune system, probably that's the only way to develop comprehensive protection against BW.

But that doesn't exist now.

It now doesn't exist, but we are very close to developing these approaches. And we have started working in this area, and I believe, if the United States government decides to study this approach very seriously and starts discussing this approach with scientists, we will be capable in three to five years of making biological weapons absolutely useless.

Have we, at this point, put enough scientists, money and effort into trying to find a solution to this?

If we analyze the level of development of biological weapons, and the level of development of bio-defense, probably the gap is about 20-25 years. Now we are developing protection against the weapons developed 20-25 years ago. We have absolutely nothing against modern versions of biological weapons. If we continue this approach, we would never be able to catch up. What we need to do is stop for a second and think what is the best way. In my opinion, there is a way and I say this all the time: Vaccines are not a magic bullet. We wouldn't be able to protect a population using vaccines, because they are capable to do this work in some cases, but this is not a comprehensive protection. If we do not understand that there are other ways, and we don't start analyzing and researching these ways, we will never be able to develop a good protection. We need to start developing so-called immune boosting protective preparations. That's the only way to make these weapons useless.

Can you compare the number of scientists that are now working in the field here in the U.S., compared to the number of scientists or facilities that were involved in the Soviet program?

Let me give this example, anthrax. In the Soviet Union, thousands of people were involved in developing an anthrax biological weapon. Here in the United States, maybe two or three people were involved in developing protection against anthrax. The amount of people who do something just to develop real protection against plague here in the United States is less than amount of institutions and organizations in the Soviet Union (the former Soviet Union) that were involved in plague problem as well.

Because of the power of these weapons, how good a tool of blackmail is it to terrorist groups?

Yes, that's a problem for this country ... because it's a very powerful country and unfortunately this type of country is not liked very often. There is a very high probability that biological weapons in the future could be some kind of instrument for blackmailing. Just imagine this type of scenario. A group of possible terrorists, now located here in the United States. They have some devices. And for example, if the United States tries to organize some kind of military action against an Arab country (because this country supports terrorist groups and such), and the leader of that country declares that if the United States tries just to fight this country, 50 terrorist groups armed with biological weapons would commit these acts, how would the United States behave in this situation? Nobody knows. And what kind of consequences this government should expect if they really used biological agents and biological weapons, is relatively severe consequences. This is a possible way just to blackmail a superpower.

When you first started telling the details of the programs, how were you received in the United States by government officials?

It was a shock. A shock because this country stopped this program in 1969. It's not naiveté, but you know, what the mentality is here in the United States--if [you] signed a treaty, [you] cannot do anything in this case. But this type of mentality couldn't be applied to other countries. For some countries, just the process of signing one or another treaty is some kind of secret permission to activate to ... intensify this activity, because it gives some kind of cover. For example, a country now understands that it has some kind of a weapon that could be used in future war without any serious consequences.

What else should be done immediately? What else do you consider to be absolutely necessary to start out?

The best way is to organize a special panel of scientists, intelligence people, government, and develop a national program of bio-defense.

Your suggestion is to begin the process and the research--what would be the first step?

Probably not just the first step. We need to make several steps. Political steps first of all. We need to develop a procedure [on] how to organize mandatory inspections, not just between the United States and Russia. We [can't] forget that there are several countries that are interested in developing biological weapons. That's why we need to undertake some political steps.

Second, we need to continue developing vaccines, but we don't have to rely on vaccines ... we need to start developing something else.

Is one problem with the vaccines that there is always a variety of bugs that could be used?

First of all, the amount of agents [that] could be used in biological weapons averages 50-70. But if we add possible genetically altered agents, this figure reaches 100 and more. Could somebody imagine 100 vaccines? Could somebody imagine that groups or population vaccinated against dozens or even hundreds possible diseases? That's impossible.

Why? What would happen to somebody who is vaccinated?

First of all, we don't have such amount of vaccines. Second, if you vaccinate simultaneously against five, six, seven or ten diseases, this person could die just after such huge amount of vaccination. Of course, if you vaccinate against one or two diseases, that's not a problem.

And another problem we need to discuss: What is possible for the troops, is absolutely impossible for civilian population. I cannot imagine how we can vaccinate the entire population of the United States against agents. And even if we had all these vaccines, it wouldn't be possible to vaccinate because it's impossible. We need to start thinking using some other ways.

In many cases, [there is] no necessity to develop vaccines. We [can't] forget that our bodies have so-called non-specific immune system. If we are able to develop preparations to boost our non-specific immune system, it would be helpful to develop so-called pre-exposure, post-exposure preparations. It would be not to use for civilian population. If we're talking about treatment when a set of symptoms appears, for example, after using biological weapons, we need to develop specific treatments based on so-called direct action drugs and then substances that could boost non-specific immune system as well.

But that could take many years. Are we in danger until that point?

I don't believe it. It would take just two or three, maximum five years, if we start analyzing this situation, if we start putting some money in such projects.

Do we need to bring experts together in Washington to analyze the situation, to figure out a direction? Where are we now?

Now, we are working mostly on developing vaccines. But what our government needs to do is gather the scientists who are knowledgeable in the area of bio-defense, ... people who are knowledgeable in bio-offensive issues and we need to develop a national program of medical bio-defense. That's the only way to make these weapons useless, maybe for a relatively short period of time, for three to five years.

How important is it to immediately create a system to defend against this? Are we ready as a country, right now, to defend against the use of these agents?

This country is the only country now in the world that is capable to do this work. If we are able to gather those people to organize a series of meetings, scientific meetings to develop this type of program, we will be capable of solving this problem.

The problem is [that] we usually don't do anything until something happens. But, when it happens, it's too late. I'm not a psychic. I cannot predict what will happen in a year, in two years. The problem is that it will happen, unfortunately. But maybe for the first time, let's try just to do something before it happens.

Right now, with what the Soviet Union is going through, the instability of the government, the problem with the economy, does that scare you? Could that have an effect on the problem of proliferation?

If you imagine an angry country, a country that is collapsing, but this country has a huge military capability, of manufacturing and applying weapons of mass destruction--that's very scary. What we need to do, until this government is in power, to solve this problem, to reduce a possible threat from this country in the future, by developing something to control these weapons better, to destroy some capabilities. And specifically, when you are talking about my area of biological weapons, we need to do everything possible to destroy this country's offensive biological capabilities.

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