A recipe for disaster

August 07, 2002|By Wendy Orent

THOSE AMERICAN scientists who know Gen. Pyotr Burgasov don't expect much candor from him.

Alexis Shelokov, a member of a U.S. scientific team that, in 1992, investigated a mysterious 1979 outbreak of anthrax in the then-Soviet Union city of Sverdlovsk, says the tall, silver-haired former deputy minister of health was "easy, pleasant, smiling, good to eat and drink with, a man who loved people and loved life.

"He was very comfortable with lying."

General Burgasov denied -- and still denies -- that the 68 people who died of inhalation anthrax in that outbreak were victims of a bioweapons accident. He insists they ate infected meat.

But in a November 2001 interview in the Moscow News, the affable general offered candid advice to terrorists. Anthrax isn't worth much, he noted -- it doesn't spread. "But smallpox -- that's a real biological weapon."

General Burgasov then dropped a bomb of his own, one that is still reverberating in the American corridors of power.

"On Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea, the strongest recipes of smallpox were tested," he said. "Four hundred grams of smallpox formulation was exploded on the island."

At that same time in 1971, he continued, a research vessel sailing on the Aral Sea passed within about nine miles of the testing site. A young technician was on board taking samples of plankton. The airborne smallpox "got her," in the general's words, and she fell ill after returning home to the town of Aralsk, where she passed the infection on to her brother and others.

"I called [Yuri] Andropov, who at that time was chief of KGB, and informed him of the exclusive recipe of smallpox obtained on Vozrozhdeniye Island," General Burgasov said.

The "exclusive recipe" of smallpox tested on Vozrozhdeniye Island produced no ordinary disease.

The young technician who first fell ill had been vaccinated. So had her brother, whom she infected when she returned to Aralsk. Both suffered severe illness. And both were contagious.

Although they survived, a young woman who visited them did not. She died of hemorrhagic smallpox, the most terrible form of the disease, which causes uncontrollable bleeding and rapid death. Two infants also died of hemorrhagic smallpox. None of the three had been vaccinated. The vaccinated patients did not die, but they came down with moderately severe disease.

Before naturally occurring smallpox disappeared in 1978, hemorrhagic smallpox was exceedingly rare -- not more than 2.5 percent of all smallpox cases took this form, which was most common in countries such as India and Bangladesh, where crowded conditions allowed severe disease to spread more easily. Yet in Kazakhstan, all three non-vaccinated cases were hemorrhagic. The numbers are small but the percentage is unnerving.

What does all this mean? Thirty years ago, Soviet scientists had weaponized a smallpox strain probably far more lethal than most forms of natural smallpox.

We often hear that smallpox has a death rate of 30 percent, nothing like the 99 percent fatality rate of, say, untreated pneumonic plague. But in fact this is only an average.

Smallpox strains from Africa killed about 10 percent of those infected, while the much hotter strains of India and Bangladesh killed many more, close to 50 percent.

Ken Alibek, former deputy director of Biopreparat, the Soviet biological-weapons apparatus, has said the Soviets deliberately selected an especially lethal strain from India, the so-called India 1, as the basis for their smallpox bioweapon.

Was the "exclusive recipe" from Aralsk the same as India 1? Possibly -- but if not, then India 1 might be worse. And we do not know which strains may be in the hands of rogue nations.

A number of American scientists have asked the Russian scientists at the Vector Laboratories of Novosibirsk, keepers of the Russian-held World Health Organization smallpox repository, to locate and turn over the Aralsk strain for joint collaborative study.

Vector scientists deny knowledge of the strain or even the incident.

If Vector has the strain, however, it's unlikely the lab would be able to hand it over on its own. "Such a decision would have to be made at the highest levels of the Russian government," Dr. Alibek says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to make a formal request for India 1 and other smallpox strains from the Vector repository.

Without that formal request, says a knowledgeable official, the Russian scientists cannot issue an export license. It isn't likely, therefore, that we'll soon understand the precise properties of the Aralsk strain, or India 1 for that matter. But we should be better prepared to face the smallpox threat.

The government should permit the American people to choose to be vaccinated now. A freshly vaccinated population -- excluding the very young, those with major skin disorders and people with seriously compromised immune systems -- could well deter a smallpox strike in the first place. Why waste effort trying to infect a vaccinated population?

Even if an attack occurred, widespread vaccination would minimize death and social disruption.

Now we know, thanks to General Burgasov's uncharacteristic candor, what weaponized smallpox strains can do. But if the event at Aralsk was the devil's fingertip, what would the whole hand be like?

We should take steps to ensure we never find out.

Wendy Orent writes frequently on infectious disease and is currently working on a book about plague.

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