Bacteria transferred in fight against bioterror

U.S. gets strains that are legacy of former Soviet weapons program

September 04, 2005|By Jeff Zeleny | Jeff Zeleny,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAKU, Azerbaijan - More than 60 dangerous and deadly bacterial strains that are a legacy of the former Soviet Union's elaborate biological weapons program were transferred last week to the United States from Azerbaijan as part of the two countries' joint fight against the threat of biological terrorism.

Copies of the strains, including bacteria that cause plague and anthrax, left Baku aboard a U.S. military aircraft in a mission cloaked in secrecy. The pathogens were scheduled to arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware by yesterday, officials said, and government scientists will begin their analysis this week in Washington.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who concluded the agreement with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, said the data would be "important in the war against terror and combating biological warfare." The sharing, Lugar said, also adds fresh and unique strains to a library of worldwide pathogens to help swiftly diagnose an international plague or prevent a disease outbreak.

The transfer of the strains is part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which the United States has used to forge relationships with former Soviet republics to reduce nuclear, chemical or biological threats.

The U.S. formalized a biological agreement with Azerbaijan in June. Under the deal, the United States provides money to help the country improve security for its pathogens to prevent theft that could lead to bioterrorism.

In exchange for the aid, Azerbaijan agreed to share copies of its strains with the United States, which could prove helpful in the event of anthrax attacks similar to the mail contamination nearly four years ago in Washington and New York. Those cases remain unsolved.

"I see this as proof that Azerbaijan is serious about cooperating with the United States on combating global terrorism," said Andy Weber, adviser to the Cooperative Threat Reduction program at the Department of Defense.

During the Cold War, the United States believes, thousands of scientists were creating a huge Soviet biological weapons program. While Russia has denied having such an extensive program, the country has declined to share its biological strains and has urged former Soviet republics not to share their pathogens.

So the strains from Azerbaijan, along with an agreement reached late last year with the government of nearby Georgia, allows U.S. scientists to learn more about the Soviet-era biological weapons program. Previously, it could take scientists days to determine the origin of a strain, officials said, but a growing global library of pathogens could reduce that time considerably.

Fearing the arrangement might collapse, U.S. officials said the transfer of the pathogens was timed to coincide with Lugar's visit so he could secure the support of President Aliyev. Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat., who was traveling with Lugar to learn about nuclear and biological threats, also discussed the strains over dinner with Aliyev.

Jennifer Brewer, the U.S. cooperative threat manager for biological weapon programs in Azerbaijan, said the transfer was complicated slightly when airport officials in Baku insisted the strains go through the airport X-ray machine. But fearing the radiation could damage the pathogens, Azerbaijan government ministers granted a waiver.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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