Scientific Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems

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Last Updated: June 10, 2014
Other Name: Scientific Research Agricultural Institute - NISKhI
Location: Gvardeyskiy settlement, Zhambyl Oblast, Kazakhstan
Subordinate To: Soviet period: Soviet Ministry of Agriculture. Current: A branch of the National Center for Biotechnology (NCB) under the Ministry of Education and Science
Size: During the Soviet period, the NISKhI was engaged in production of various BW agents harmful to livestock and plants. Today, the institute conducts fundamental research into the molecular biology of various pathogens
Facility Status: Operational

The Scientific Research Agricultural Institute (NISKhI) was established in 1958 in the settlement of Gvardeyskiy near Otar railway station, about 180 kilometers outside Almaty. The NISKhI was the only biological weapons (BW) research center in Kazakhstan specializing in viruses and belonged to a distinct group of Soviet BW facilities that developed agents harmful to livestock and plants. Although the institute was subordinate to the USSR Ministry of Agriculture, its director held military rank. The NISKhI had cooperative ties with Russian centers conducting similar research in Vladimir (under the Ministry of Agriculture), in Sverdlovsk (under the MOD), and at Vector in Novosibirsk (under Biopreparat), where the agents produced at the NISKhI were tested. The institute did not have direct links with the Stepnogorsk and Vozrozhdeniye Island facilities, evidently because of its specialization in anti-crop and anti-livestock agents.

Research on anti-crop agents possibly began in the 1970s, when the NISKhI received orders from military authorities to study the resistance of crops to various biological pathogens. The institute had broad expertise in highly pathogenic and exotic diseases of livestock and crops caused by viruses and other agents. Among these are Rinderpest virus, Newcastle disease virus, African swine fever virus, sheep pox virus, goat pox virus, fowl pox virus, blue-tongue virus (catarrhal fever of sheep), herpes virus (Aujeszky's disease), and cereal rust fungi.

In 1991, Moscow terminated all military research and left the NISKhI without central administration or funding. Many specialists left to work at institutes in Russia.

After Moscow stopped funding the NISKhI, the institute initially fell under the administrative control of the Kazakhstani Ministry of Agriculture, and the conversion process to peaceful research started. In 1993, the newly created National Center for Biotechnology (NCB) brought the NISKhI under its control together with Stepnogorsk Scientific Experimental and Production Base (SNOPB) and Kazakhstani civilian biotechnology facilities. In 2006, the NISKhI was renamed to the Scientific Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems. At present, the institute conducts fundamental research into the molecular biology of various pathogens: viruses, bacteria, and fungi harmful to plants and animals. The institute also develops methods of preparing nutrient media for virology research, and possesses an extensive agricultural pathogen library, which requires considerable measures for ensuring physical security. The library includes collections of microorganisms, viruses, pathogens, plants, and also vivarium, greenhouse, and agricultural technologies. Consisting of 10 research laboratories, the institute employs more than 230 people, including nearly 80 bioscientists. By the 30 July 2002 government decree, the institute was designated Kazakhstan’s official depository of highly dangerous animal and bird infections, with a collection of 278 pathogenic strains of 46 infectious diseases. In 2007, the United States awarded a contract of $800,000 to the institute to work on an avian influenza virus. The purpose of the project is to monitor avian flu agents among wild and domestic birds, as well as among people with a high risk of contracting the disease (e.g. employees of battery farms, medical workers, and hunters) and to study the virus’s biological properties.

Under a CTR program specifically designed to provide bio-security and bio-safety protection for national strain collections at two facilities in Kazakhstan, $4 million was allocated for enhancing the security of NISKhI and the pathogen collections at the Anti-Plague Scientific Research Institute in Almaty. The goal of the program was the creation of both secure working conditions for personnel and the physical security of the institute. As a result of the program, excess infrastructure was removed, a reinforced concrete fence was erected around the site, an alarm system was installed within the security perimeter, and training was provided for the institute's security personnel.

Sources:
[1] Gulbarshyn Bozheyeva, Yerlan Kunakbayev, and Dastan Yeleukenov, "Former Soviet Biological Weapons Facilities in Kazakhstan: Past, Present and Future," Occasional Paper, No. 1, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, June 1999.
[2] Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas, "The 1971 Smallpox Epidemic in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, and the Soviet Biological Warfare Program," Occasional Paper No. 9, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, June 2002.
[3] Jonathan B. Tucker's speech during the briefing on "Biological Decontamination of Vozrozhdeniye Island: The US-Uzbek Agreement"
[4] BW Materials Security and Transparency, Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) webpage at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), www.dtra.mil.
[5] Gennadiy Lepeshkin, "Byvshiye obyekty po razrabotke BO v Tsentralnoy Azii," Problemy Nerasprastraneniya, Special Edition, April 2001.
[6] Yevgeniy Troitskiy, "Fizicheskaya zashita, uchet i kontrol biomaterialov v NISKhI MON RK," Problemy Nerasprastraneniya, Special Edition, April 2001.
[7] Scientific Research Institute of Biosafety Problems, www.srai.kz.
[8] Togzhan Kassenova, "Biological Threat Reduction in Central Asia," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 18 July 2008, www.thebulletin.org.

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