Bio-attack -- how vulnerable
are we?

Geoff Metcalf interviews former Soviet bioweapons scientist

Editor's Note: Dr. Ken Alibek, author of "Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World -- Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It," defected to the United States in 1992 after leaving his job as a top scientist in the Soviet Union's biological weapons program. In his book, Alibek describes putting anthrax on a warhead and targeting a city on the other side of the world. Alibek sat down with Geoff Metcalf for a chilling interview on the mechanics of and defense against biological weapons, as well as treatment options for victims.

By Geoff Metcalf
Q: Dr. Alibek, at various times, the Soviet Union tried to deny their involvement in biological and chemical warfare. What was it that you actually did for the Soviets in the field of biological weapons?

A: It would be a long story, but to make a long story short, I would tell you the Soviet Union had a very huge, a very sophisticated, very powerful biological weapons program. It was established many years ago -- in my opinion, in the late '20s. It continued to the beginning of the '90s, and nobody knows whether or not it continues. But this program was to research and develop very sophisticated biological weapons, including many bacterial weapons based on anthrax, plague and many other bacterial agents.

Q: It wasn't just the things kids study in college, but you guys were actually creating, for lack of a better description, biological weapon cocktails.

A: The general idea was not just to create cocktails, but according to the Soviet Union's military biological doctrine, in future wars the Soviet Union would be using many different biological weapons.

Q: Such as?

A: Including many viral weapons, bacterial weapons, fungi weapons. In this case, of course, we can talk about possible "cocktails," if, for example, one large metropolitan area is attacked by several different biological weapons.

Q: In the wake of the Sept. 11 attack, the big follow-up flap was the anthrax scare. However, frankly, when you look at the numbers, it was almost insignificant. Are you familiar with the exercise we ran in June called "Dark Winter"?

A: I've heard about the exercise, but personally I didn't take part.

Q: But you are familiar with the results from the after-action report?

A: Yes. I know something about it, because it was quite a discouraging report.

Q: One of the many depressing things is when you take a look at the anthrax flap and the actual people affected and fatalities, statistically -- now I know that to the individuals involved it is tragic -- but statistically, it is insignificant. But God forbid something like smallpox were to be introduced as a biological weapon; it would be catastrophic, wouldn't it?

A: Yes, you are right. Smallpox is a completely different weapon. It is contagious. It requires a very low infectious dose. And if somebody deploys smallpox, we would see completely different consequences.

Q: There was an Australian guy, Dr. Ron Jackson, and he had a partner. They kind of accidentally created some kind of mousepox, didn't they?

A: Yes. There was a study, and in my opinion, they did quite the wrong thing publishing this data.

Q: We have been told, and we still get told, you don't have to worry about smallpox because the only people that have it are some lab samples in the U.S. and Russia. How significant is the threat of some kind of a smallpox biological weapon being released?

A: In my opinion, it is a very significant mistake when we believe that just Russia and the United States have this virus. A decision was made in the early '80s that smallpox was eradicated. Then the decision was made just to have two repositories -- one in the United States and one in the Soviet Union, now Russia. But at the same time, there was not any kind of obligatory requirement to destroy all national stocks. It was a recommendation. But there was no identification or notification process; nobody knows actually what countries or who else has a strain of the smallpox virus. In my opinion, there are some countries that have not destroyed this virus; in my opinion, we are quite naive believing nobody else but the United States and Russia have the virus.

Q: I don't recall the details, but you may, about one specific incident. Gorbachev got in a diplomatic pickle at one point over biologicals. The U.S. held his feet to the fire, and Gorby instructed officials to basically hide a whole bunch of biological weapons on some island not too far from Afghanistan.

A: It was not smallpox; it was anthrax. But, generally, if we talk about the Gorbachev role in smallpox, it started when they came to Moscow in 1987. As the leader of this program, I saw a top secret decree signed by Gorbachev to intensify research and development work in the field of smallpox. He ordered the development of new types of smallpox biological weapons. He ordered the development of new strains, genetically engineered strains, of smallpox. It was the late '80s, the beginning of the '90s. To believe that everything was ended a long time ago, it would not be true.

Q: Gorbachev ordered subordinates to "get rid of this! Hide it!" So they took it and buried it on this island and then just left it there?

A: You know, you are absolutely right. There is an island, an island located in the Aral Sea ...

Q: Yeah, that's it!

A: The name of the island is Vozrozhdeniye. In English, I would translate it like "renaissance" island. Yes, in the late '80s, a decision was made just to transfer all anthrax stocks from one of the major stockpiling facilities to Vozrozhdeniye Island. Now we know this island is quite contaminated with anthrax.

Q: Actually, before Sept. 11, I think there was some long-term plan to actually try to decontaminate the island. What I found shocking and amazing was that once the Soviets stuck that stuff on the island, they basically just buried it in a shallow grave and walked away.

A: Yes, you are right. They tried to decontaminate it, but when you deal with anthrax, it's actually impossible to decontaminate the entire island.

Q: When you defected from the Soviet Union, your debriefing took a long time, didn't it?

A: Yes. It took about one year.

Q: I recall the U.S. was surprised when you told us that the Russians were continuing to produce smallpox by the ton.

A: Yes. By the time I came, they were not producing smallpox by the ton, but this work was being done during the beginning of the '80s, and they knew it.

Q: Ken, if the Soviets had that much, where is it?

A: With biological weapons, it's a little bit easier than with chemical weapons, because it is very difficult to destroy chemical weapons. Biological weapons have been destroyed using some specific techniques. It's not a very big problem.

Q: What do you do -- throw a bottle of Clorox in it?

A: Not Clorox -- high-temperature steam. For example, about 120 degrees Celsius. And you can kill the smallpox virus.

Q: You were involved in an accident with, what was it, Tularemia? Some plague like agent.

A: Yes, Tularemia, that's right. It's a plague-like disease, but it's not contagious.

Q: But you were sloshing around in puddles of the stuff, right?

A: Yes. There was an accident.

Q: Recently, there was an Ebola outbreak. A lot of people are asking, if a biological weapon were to be used by some potential bad guy, they probably wouldn't use anthrax, would they?

A: It is difficult to say. In many cases, it depends on the availability of one or another biological agents. We don't consider this anthrax case "effective," because there were just five deaths. And you're right, it is a tragic event.

Q: But statistically, it is really insignificant.

A: Yes, but at the same time, what we need to pay attention to, in my opinion, is we remember how we felt in that time -- October and November -- the feeling of being scared, the feeling of anxiety. People were afraid to open letters. During that time, we suffered a huge economic damage from a very small amount of anthrax. In this case, what's important for us to understand is it's not just a matter of biological attack as a biological attack ...

Q: But as a psychological attack.

A: It's the psychological impact, the economic impact. Even two to five grams of anthrax could cause such significant damage, you can imagine what kind of problem we are going to have. In addition to anthrax, it is plague, it's smallpox, it's Ebola. Unfortunately, it has been developed already.

Q: The problem with this stuff is the symptoms. Our medical infrastructure is not prepared to diagnose cases of Ebola, anthrax, smallpox or whatever. If somebody comes in with flu-like symptoms, they are probably going to call it flu.

A: Yes. This is one of the biggest problems, and we know this. We have been discussing this issue many times, but even now we can say that our medical community is not fully prepared to just do defensive diagnosis between smallpox and flu, especially in the beginning of the infectious process.

Q: Why?

A: Because we see no signs of smallpox. We call them flu-like symptoms. Anthrax, smallpox, some other infectious disease could be misdiagnosed, and we can miss the real picture. And when we get to what is really going on, it could be quite late.

Q: The catch-22 is that when a microbe is inhaled, it doesn't immediately shoot right to the bloodstream. It could take hours or days, right?

A: Yes. We call this the incubation period. The incubation period is the period when we don't see any significant symptoms of infection. It is the period when the virus or bacterium is developing and accumulating in the body in the lymphatic system, the bloodstream. And then we see a second stage we call the prodromal stage, or some people call it a period of flu-like symptoms. It means after infection, we could have two to seven to 17 days of incubation period, depending on the pathogen. Then some period of three, four, five days of so-called flu-like symptoms period. In this case, you can imagine how many people would be already infected.

Q: You were raised in the Soviet Union and inculcated with all the Soviet propaganda. At what point did Ken Alibek have his epiphany and come to the conclusion that something is very, very wrong?

A: Nothing came within a couple of days. It was a long process of thinking, of analyzing what was going on in the Soviet Union in the field, what we knew about the United States' activity. The final decision I made was when I came to the United States in 1991 to inspect the United States' biological weapons facilities. When I found all those facilities abandoned, all the equipment rusted -- and of course, no activity whatsoever -- I decided it was enough. I quit the program. I left the army. I was, at the time, a colonel in the Russian Army. I decided to go back to my native motherland, because I am not native Russian. I'm from Kazakhstan, central Asia. I decided to go to Kazakhstan, and when I came there, I was offered the same work to help Kazakhstan do something in this field. Of course, it was too much, and I decided to escape. I came to the United States in 1992.

Q: You became a doctor in 1975. You spent all that time working in the bioweapons development and technology program. I can't imagine the Soviets were all that anxious to lose a resource like you.

A: It's a long story. Nobody would let me go away, and when they found out I decided to quit, it created all kinds of problems. All my phones were tapped, and there were a lot of talks with KGB officials, and some scary things were happening. But the decision was made.

Q: I dug up the testimony you had before Reps. Hunter and Weldon in their subcommittee. Probably one of the best instructive things you can do for our readers is to explain for them, as you did to Congress, what are biological weapons. Because one of the things you touched on were the things that could be developed that aren't apparently around yet, like agents that could corrode equipment and so forth. So, what is a biological weapon?

A: It is a very interesting question, because not many people know about biological weapons. Biological weapons are weapons based on bacteria, viruses and various pathogens. Bacterial agents -- for example we know anthrax, we know plague, we know tularemia -- viral agents like smallpox, Ebola, Malberg and hemorrhagic fever viruses. But these viruses themselves are not weapons yet. In order to make weapons, they developed special technologies -- techniques to manufacture agents in large amounts, large quantities. The process starts from a single vial, and then there are several stages of manufacture and using different nutrient media, different types of equipment. Then the process of concentration, the process of drying -- meaning filling in specific bombs, warheads. And at this stage, it could be said a specific biological weapon is ready for use.

Q: Prior to that, would they attempt to manipulate or genetically alter the biological agent so that it is more resistant to, or impervious to any kind of vaccine?

A: You know, Geoff, there are different types of biological weapons. Some of them could be based on so-called natural strains. For example, this recent anthrax scare is a natural strain; it is not a genetically manipulated strain. But some sophisticated weapons could be based on genetically engineered strains. Some of them could be antibiotic-resistant biological weapons.

Q: You said in your congressional testimony that, theoretically, it is possible that new types of biological weapons could be produced to damage equipment by corrosion, degrade plastics that are used in computers and so forth, and even render fuels useless. Are they just "maybes" and "what ifs," or has someone actually developed those things?

A: In the Soviet Union, there was some study about whether or not it was feasible to develop such weapons. It was known there are some microorganisms with the capability to destroy fuel, to destroy plastic and so on. In this case, you're talking about the possibility and the feasibility, and it is possible. At the time I was working for the Soviet program, there was no actual weapon of such that was developed.

Q: What about delivery systems? Beyond the mail with the anthrax scare, I know most of these nasty bugs are delivered by mosquitoes or fleas you put it in the water supply, or somehow it is ingested. It is unlikely with a terrorist threat that some big bomber is going to come in and disseminate it that way. How do they deliver the biological weapon?

A: We need to divide two different deployment methods or techniques: military deployment and terror deployment. When we talk about military deployment, we can talk about special containers.

Q: Missiles?

A: No, just containers which have infected vectors like fleas, mosquitoes and so on. It is quite an old technique but one which can still be used even now by some countries. Then a more sophisticated delivery technique is missiles, aviation bombs with special bombletts that would contain dry or liquid types of biological weapons. It is a more sophisticated technique. There is a so-called diversion-type biological weapon that could be used for contamination of water sources or food sources. But the last one could be used by terrorist groups to contaminate water supplies and food supplies.

Q: What about the various water purification systems we have? Would it eradicate the normal type of biological weapon that might be introduced?

A: It depends on the type of purification system For example, if we talk about a large city with a very big, powerful water purification system, that would be a big problem for would-be terrorists. There is the dilutional issue, because to contaminate and infect the entire big reservoir, it would be very, very difficult because it would require a very huge amount of biological agent.

Q: I have also had occasion to talk with Stanislov Lunev. He was the GRU defector, and he was talking about nuclear suitcase bombs he claims were pre-deployed -- already in the continental United States someplace waiting for some sleeper to activate. Was there ever the intent or a plan or policy under the bioweapons program of the Soviet Union to pre-place biologicals in the event someone wanted to deploy them at some later date?

A: Because I was working for strictly a military program, and it was intended to deploy biological weapons just in one case -- in case of war and in using what I would say are regular delivery systems such as missiles, strategic bombers or medium range bombers -- we didn't develop anything such as you suggest. But I have no idea if something was developed by the KGB. It wasn't our responsibility to develop this type of terrorist weapon.

Q: The stuff you were working on was pretty sophisticated, high-tech scientific stuff, and hopefully the prospect that that kind of stuff -- and I don't want to be Pollyanna-ish about this -- but the prospect that these genetically manipulated agents might end up in the hands of a terrorist hopefully would be less likely than a nation-state. But what is the primary biological threat that Americans should be aware of that arguably our country doesn't want to warn us about yet? Is it smallpox?

A: I wouldn't say smallpox. Smallpox is a possible biological terrorism agent. I would include here anthrax, smallpox, plague, some other viral agents -- Ebola, Marburg ...

Q: What is Marburg infection?

A: Marburg infection is a close relative to Ebola. It is from the same family of viruses. It has effectively the same effects as the Ebola virus.

Q: Are there any natural pre-warning things? Are birds going to start falling out of the air or cattle dropping over to give us a heads-up that something bad is happening?

A: Unfortunately, we wouldn't see anything like this. What we could see are some attempts to deploy biological agents in highly populated areas.

Q: So bad guys would target New York, L.A., Chicago, Detroit. ...

A: Yes, unfortunately. Unfortunately, it could be New York, it could be Los Angeles, or Chicago or Washington, D.C. Because a major idea of terrorism -- terrorism could be translated as "horror" -- is just to scare people, to terrify people. That's why they would try to use it at some locations where you can cause the highest damage, the highest disruption of vital activity.

Q: The Soviet Union and the United States were not the only ones playing with this stuff. Japan had a group working on biologicals, Osama bin Laden has wanted this stuff, Saddam Hussein has been seeking any and all kinds of weapons of mass destruction.

A: True.

Q: Fiction author Tom Clancy has a few scenarios -- one in "Rainbow Six," where he talks about Ebola being used as a biological weapon. How realistic is that?

A: Unfortunately, science moves very fast. Now we know that theoretically it is possible to genetically engineer the Ebola virus. Some work has been done in this field, and now many scientists working in that area understand how that virus can be engineered.

Q: Unfortunately, if science can do it, science probably will do it. Is Ebola less fragile now? Can it be aerosolized and airborne?

A: For regular natural Ebola virus, it could be aerosolized. The study has been done. I don't envision any problem for someone to aerosolize genetically engineered Ebola virus. It's not going to happen soon, but we need to understand that theoretically it could happen.

Q: Now that you are helping us in finding countermeasures and so forth, the big question is, are we up-to-speed on this challenge or have we been sleeping at the switch?

A: In my opinion, we try to accelerate our speed, but at the same time, we have lost much time. We could have started much earlier. But you know, there was a time nobody actually believed a biological-weapons threat would be a real threat. Now we know it is not science fiction; we have already seen something. Even in this case, in my opinion, we move quite slow. It's not just a matter of being slow. Unfortunately, as a country we still have no well-defined national scientific concept of biological-weapons defense. We still need to rectify our understanding of biological weapons.

Q: In the wake of the recent anthrax scare -- and we both grudgingly admit that statistically, although that had a devastating psychological impact, not a lot of people died from that -- but if Iran, Iraq, whoever, anybody that is playing with this stuff decides they want to do something bigtime, did Don Rumsfeld pick up a phone and kick somebody in the ass and say, "Hey, we need something next week. Make it so!"?

A: If you say we need something next week, we've got the answer of, "Yes, we've got antibiotics to treat anthrax." Then they can get an answer: "Yes, we've got an investigational vaccine." At the same time, what we need to understand is two important things. First, vaccines would never be feasible to use in case of virus attacks.

Q: Starting with the fact you don't know what our enemies are going to use.

A: And because you don't know when you need to use it, because this threat comes without warning. In this case, when we see the first cases of anthrax, it is already too late to use vaccines. But when we talk about antibiotics, antibiotics are able to treat cutaneous form of anthrax and inhalation anthrax at the early stages. If we misdiagnose anthrax and we see people in late stage anthrax and we did -- remember all those people who died were in late stages of anthrax -- unfortunately, we have nothing to treat those people.

Q: There was a recent Congo Ebola epidemic. Do you think it is natural?

A: In my opinion, when we talk about African cases, in the great majority of cases these are natural outbreaks. But if we see something in Europe like Ebola or Marburg, of course it would be very difficult to imagine this infection could appear in Europe.

Q: Even though we have al-Qaida playing down around Yemen and Sudan and so forth, you don't think man precipitated the Congo Ebola?

A: You know, to say something for sure, you need to have much more information.

Q: I know that. I'm just asking for your professional opinion.

A: In my opinion, these cases were natural cases.

Q: Some of the countries playing in this arena, like Iraq, Iran, Syria, in the case of Iraq the conventional wisdom is that if or when Saddam gets his hands on a deployable weapon of mass destruction, he is going to use it.

A: Yes. In my opinion, you are absolutely right. It's a tough problem now. We talk about a necessity to force Iraq to just open its facilities for inspection. We know that Iraq is not going to do this. In this case, it seems to me in the future we are not going to have any option but to start bombing Iraq. But you know, there is another side of this problem. If we start doing this, and this guy -- he is a crazy guy -- he understands he has no choice, because we will be hunting for Saddam Hussein as we do for Osama bin Laden. In this case, knowing he has no chance, he would try to deploy biological weapons to kill as many people as possible. That's my biggest concern.

Q: Are we better off now than we were 10 years ago? And what do we need to do that we are not doing?

A: Yes, you are absolutely right. We are much better off. If you compare what we knew about biological-weapons threat and biological-weapons defense 10 years ago and what we know now, it is a huge step ahead. But at the same time, what we need to understand, the American nation, the American people, could do much just to force the government to do some very important steps.

Q: Such as?

A: First, we still have no real national concept of biological-weapons defense. We still have no full understanding of what biological-weapons threat is. Without this understanding and without this concept, we wouldn't be able to develop an appropriate defense for our country. That is absolutely essential, and that must be done.