Odessa labs host deadly legacy

UKRAINE: For 50 years under Soviet rule, almost everything about the Odessa Anti-plague Station was a state secret, down to …

UKRAINE: For 50 years under Soviet rule, almost everything about the Odessa Anti-plague Station was a state secret, down to the names of the deadly microbes its white-coated workers collected and stored in two basic freezers.

Lodged in a squat, grey block at the tip of a rusting shipping dock, the station's biologists churned out reports on grave illnesses that were mentioned only in code. Anthrax was Disease No 123, and plague, which killed thousands here in the 19th century, was No 127.

Each year, researchers added new specimens to their frozen collection and shared test results with sister institutes along a network controlled by Moscow.

Today, the Soviet Union is gone but the lab is still here, in this Black Sea port notorious for criminal gangs and black markets. It is just one of more than 80 similar "anti-plague" labs scattered across the former Soviet Union, from the turbulent Caucasus to central Asian republics. Each is a repository of knowledge, equipment and lethal pathogens that could be useful to bioterrorists.

After decades of being in the shadows, the labs are beginning to shed light on another secret: how the Soviet military co-opted obscure civilian institutes into a powerful biological warfare programme that built weapons for spreading plague and anthrax spores. As they stepped up preparations for germ warfare in the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet generals mined the labs for raw materials, including highly-lethal strains of viruses and bacteria for use in bombs and missiles.

The facilities' hidden role is described in a draft report by scholars from the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, whose findings would be a revelation to many who worked in the centres.

The labs today are seeking to fill a critical role in preventing epidemics in regions where medical services and sanitation have deteriorated since Soviet times. But an equally pressing challenge is how to prevent the germ collections and biological know-how from being stolen.

"They often have culture collections of pathogens that lack biosecurity, and they employ people who are well-versed in investigating and handling deadly pathogens," said Raymond Zilinskas, a bioweapons expert and co-author of the draft report.

"Some are located at sites accessible to terrorist groups and criminal groups."

Managers of the old anti-plague stations are aware of their vulnerability but lack the most basic resources, according to the Monterey authors. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, budgets at the institutes have fallen so steeply that even simple security upgrades are out of reach. One facility in a central Asian capital could not even afford a telephone and had no way of contacting police in the event of a break-in.

At least two centres outside Russia have acknowledged that there have been burglaries or break-ins in the past three years, though there are no confirmed reports of stolen pathogens.

The lack of modern biosafety equipment is also raising concern among US officials over the potential for an accidental release of deadly bacteria and viruses.

In Odessa, where 44 scientists and 140 staff carry out research in the II Mechnikov Anti-plague Scientific and Research Institute, scientists wear cotton smocks and surgical masks to work with lethal microbes that in the West would be locked in high-containment laboratories and handled only by scientists in spacesuits.

"Many of the institutes are located in downtown areas, and some work with pathogens with windows wide open," said Sonia Ben Ouagrham, who co-authored the Monterey report.

The institutes were not officially part of the Soviet bioweapons complex, so they have been ineligible for the tens of millions of dollars given each year by western governments to keep former weapons scientists from selling their expertise.

These governments are just beginning to look for ways to help the institutes, and not only because of the bioterrorism threat. In a two-year study of Russia's biotech industry, a panel of the US National Academy of Sciences recently urged former Soviet republics to modernise the anti-plague labs and integrate them with other global networks working to prevent pandemics.

"These institutes have served to prevent diseases such as plague, tularemia and Crimean-Congo fever from spilling over," Mr Zilinskas said, referring to a flu-like fever sometimes referred to as "rabbit flu" and a haemorrhagic viral fever. "Some Europeans are unaware of this biological threat on their southeastern flank."

The Monterey report studies how the institutes evolved under Soviet leadership, drawing on scores of interviews and visits to more than 40 sites. By the end of the Soviet period the network boasted 14,000 employees and 88 permanent facilities, including six major anti-plague institutes, 26 regional stations and 53 smaller field stations.

Beginning in the 1950s, the military began to exert influence over research priorities. At first, the Monterey report says, anti-plague institutes were asked to help bolster the nation's defences against a possible foreign biological attack.

A growing international consensus against biological warfare prompted the Soviet Union to shift to a new direction. In 1969, President Nixon unilaterally halted US production of biological weapons. Three years later the Soviet Union joined the US and others in signing the biological weapons convention, outlawing biological weapons.

But within two years the Soviets secretly began to build a massive offensive weapons programme, much hidden inside a sprawling civilian-run enterprise called Biopreparat, which put tens of thousands of scientists to work on bioweapons projects disguised as pharmaceutical research.

Western governments did not become fully aware of its true purpose until a leading Soviet scientist, Vladimir Pasechnik, defected to Britain in 1989.

The generals looked to the anti-plague network for help, a goldmine because they provided ready-to-use information, biomaterial and expertise.

Precise details of the anti-plague institutes' work remain unclear. The Russian government still refuses officially to acknowledge the existence of the Soviet Union's offensive weapons programme.

But scientists now living outside Russia have brought much to light. It is now known, for example, that key anti-plague institutes during this period came under the command of Soviet military officers, some of whom once worked at military biological facilities.

"There was a secret law that enjoined all anti-plague institutes to send the government any kind of virulent strain that might be used for defensive purposes," said Mr Zilinskas. Soviet bioweapons that most likely originated in anti-plague centres include bacterial strains that cause plague, anthrax and tularemia, the report concludes.

Today, the Odessa anti-plague station, and others like it throughout the former Soviet Union, face a new generation of cash-related difficulties.

Many of the centres maintain high professional standards, researchers insist, thanks in part to a core of older scientists who were trained under the Soviet system in classic laboratory techniques. But today, training is harder to come by, even for the few young scientists who are willing to accept starting salaries of less than $25 a week. - (LA Times-Washington Post service)