U.S.S.R. one of many sources for anthrax

More than a dozen nations are believed to have bioweapons

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 17, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - If the anthrax spores that have infected five Americans came from outside the United States, a likely source would evidently be one of the republics of the former Soviet Union, which had an immense biological weapons program.

But there is no lack of other suspects - a dozen nations in Asia and Africa are thought to possess anthrax arsenals.

Experts have long worried about the possibility that former Soviet scientists might be hired away by a so-called rogue state to continue their work. But Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, China, Taiwan, Pakistan, India, Israel, Egypt, South Africa and Sudan reportedly already have bioweapons.

Some might have launched their programs with Soviet, or even Russian, help. But today there is no monopoly on anthrax.

Since September, reports have surfaced that agents of Osama bin Laden acquired anthrax from sources in the Czech Republic or in North Korea, or that they had the freelance assistance of scientists in Ukraine. None of those reports has been confirmed.

But the unfortunate truth is that anthrax is not hard to find because it's a common disease among animals in the central parts of Asia. The Russians call it Siberian ulcer; an outbreak among humans in Tuva, a region along the Mongolian border, was reported yesterday in Izvestia. Thirty-six people are being treated, and health officials believe it was a natural occurrence.

The key, in taking ordinary anthrax bacteria and making them into a weapon, is to find or develop the most virulent varieties and reproduce them. Then they have to be delivered in such a way that the intended victims inhale them.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan had a stockpile of anthrax, which it tried to use in the early 1990s, but it failed because the material used was not potent enough.

The Soviets didn't have that problem, and that's why their successors tend to be first in line among suspects where proliferation is concerned.

Scientists here are adamant that no one from the Soviet program has defected or sold materials to other countries.

"It is very unlikely that cultures, especially the most dangerous ones, can be bought even for a lot of money," Viktor Maleyev, deputy director of the Central Scientific Research Institute of Epidemiology, said yesterday. "Too many people are involved in checkups and procedures. And there have been no cases of theft from civilian institutes."

But the Soviet program was incomprehensibly huge, and it left a legacy that could be exploited.

After an accidental release of anthrax at a lab in Sverdlovsk in 1979 killed at least 70 people, Moscow built a new plant for anthrax production in Stepnogorsk, on the steppes of Kazakstan.

It was gigantic, 200 yards long and producing hundreds of tons of particularly lethal anthrax spores, resistant to vaccines.

If it could have been delivered effectively, there was presumably enough anthrax stored up to kill everyone on Earth. Sixty thousand people worked there and in other centers across the Soviet Union on producing biological weapons - although Moscow signed a treaty banning these weapons in 1972.

Russia halted its biological weapons work in 1992, although some Western experts believe a certain amount of research continues. The derelict factory at Stepnogorsk is being razed, with American assistance.

But last week a team of U.S. inspectors found anthrax spores in a pipe there. And at an old testing range a few hundred miles away, there's so much anthrax everywhere that it's virtually lying on the ground waiting for someone to pick it up. That range is on an island called Vozrozhdeniye in the Aral Sea, divided now between Kazakstan and Uzbekistan.

Anthrax from tests still contaminates the ground and plant life on the island; hundreds of tons of additional anthrax were hurriedly buried there in barrels in 1992. The place is deserted, and reportedly unguarded.

"The idea that anthrax spores can be picked up easily by anybody on Vozrozhdeniye Island is absolutely correct," said Lev Fyodorov, a chemist who has tried to alert the Russian public to the dangers of biological and chemical weapons.

Experts here tend to agree that although anthrax is not too difficult to come by, producing an effective weapon with it is considerably more difficult.

Attaching it to a carrier - white powder, for instance - is the main challenge. The particles must also be the right size to be inhaled into the lungs, where anthrax is most lethal.

"I don't agree with those who say this culture can be produced in a kitchen," said Venyamin Cherkassky, a leading epidemiologist here. "I'm sure a very sophisticated technological chain was necessary to produce the kind of powder that people in America have been receiving."

But that "chain" was probably not so sophisticated as to be beyond the reach of a few countries.

Iraq, for instance, has been working on biological weapons since 1974. It originally bought anthrax samples from labs in France and Rockville, Md. When the United Nations stopped weapons inspections there in 1999, 8,500 liters of anthrax known to be in its possession were unaccounted for.

When Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan, defected in 1995, he provided information about 25 warheads with bioweapons, five of them with anthrax, according to Middle East Policy magazine.

Iraq is said to have the ability to mass produce germ weapons, but to be lacking in equipment.

That could be where the Russians come in again. In 1998 Russia was discovered to be negotiating with Iraq over the sale of fermentation vessels - which could be used to brew beer or grow anthrax - with a capacity of 50,000 liters. That particular sale was called off, when the United Nations got wind of it and started to raise questions.

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