Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
International Assistance for Anti-plague Facilities in the Former Soviet Union to Prevent Proliferation of Biological Weapons
This brief is inspired by a ground-breaking study on the anti-plague system of the former Soviet Union conducted by a team of researchers from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the Kazakh Scientific Center of Quarantine and Zoonotic Infections in Almaty, Kazakhstan, under the supervision of the study's principal investigators, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham and Dr. Raymond A. Zilinskas. The results of the study, which was funded by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, will be published in two occasional papers during the summer of 2005.
The Soviet Union operated a unique system to control deadly endemic diseases and to prevent the importation of exotic pathogens from other countries that could threaten human populations, livestock, and crops. It was called the "anti-plague system," where the word "plague" was used broadly to refer to infectious diseases causing high morbidity and mortality. The anti-plague (AP) system consisted of six institutes, 29 regional AP stations, 53 field AP stations, and about 200 epidemiological teams, which were strategically located in 11 republics of the former Soviet Union (FSU)–in Russia, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
The Soviet AP system was established on the remainders of the Tsarist AP system, and focused on combating endemic diseases and natural exotic infections that might cross the border from neighboring countries, such as Afghanistan, China, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan. Throughout the Soviet era, the AP system worked effectively, preventing major epidemics from decimating Soviet citizens in regions where diseases such as anthrax, brucellosis, bubonic plague, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and tularemia are endemic, and protecting economically important animals and crops from infectious diseases. In the early 1960s, however, parts of the AP system were incorporated into the Soviet BW program. Initially, the AP system performed tasks for the defensive BW program–known as Problem 5–and later in the 1970s for the offensive BW program–known as Ferment.
After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the AP system was fragmented and reorganized by the governments of the newly independent states (NIS). Although the Soviet era AP institutes still exist, as do most of the regional and field AP stations, they are in various states of disrepair and insolvency, and in most cases are no longer able to fully control the natural foci of dangerous diseases. Nevertheless, these facilities possess unique collections of pathogenic bacterial, fungal, and viral strains and their staffs include scientists and technicians who are highly knowledgeable about the biological and epidemiological characteristics of some of the world's deadliest pathogens. Under these conditions, possible "leakages" of dangerous pathogens, technology, and scientific know-how from AP facilities have become threats to international security.
After the Soviet Union's dissolution, the NIS reorganized their healthcare systems, merging plague control institutions with sanitary and other public health organizations. In some cases, this reorganization increased the workload of AP facilities, but failed to assure proper funding to carry out these activities. This had two main consequences: AP facilities have been experiencing increasing economic hardships, which eventually have led to a decrease in their disease surveillance activities.
During the first few years following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the effects of the economic crisis, which soon affected all former Soviet republics, were not immediately felt by AP facilities. During the Soviet era, they had accumulated a solid stock of equipment, vehicles, and scientific and medical supplies that allowed them to continue monitoring the natural plague foci and other dangerous diseases occurring on their respective territories, and conducting scientific research related to these diseases after the dissolution of the USSR. But eventually, equipment started breaking down, and the stocks of supplies began running out, while no new funding was forthcoming from the cash-strapped governments for replacements. As a consequence of these economic difficulties, AP facilities lost much of their personnel.
During its peak activity from 1960 through the 1970s, the Soviet AP system employed approximately 14,000 people, nearly half of them doctors and bioscientists. The rest were paramedics (nurses, laboratory assistants, disinfectors, etc.), technicians (drivers, rodent exterminators, security guards), and office staff. After the Soviet Union dissolved, salaries decreased sharply because of the economic crisis, and, as a result, many employees resigned, while others emigrated. Most of the researchers who chose to relocate either returned to their places of origin in the former Soviet Union or emigrated to European countries, such as Germany. To partially offset the steep decrease in salaries, the management of AP facilities allowed their employees to take additional jobs in healthcare. In some NIS, AP facilities' staff members were given tacit permission to hold several jobs within their institution in order to maximize their earnings. In some former Soviet republics, AP facilities rented parts of their premises to private businesses in order to generate supplemental income. Nevertheless, most AP facilities ended up loosing on average 40-50 percent of their Soviet era employees.
Due to funding cuts, understaffing, and lack of equipment, disease surveillance activities on natural plague foci began to decline steeply in all or most of the NIS. By 2002, only one third of natural disease foci, on average, were still monitored. In these conditions, the threat of new epidemics has dramatically increased. Table 1 below shows the size in square kilometers of plague-endemic areas in the NIS.
In many former Soviet republics, the transitional period since independence has seen the emergence of radical groups, some armed, that would meet little resistance if they decided to procure or steal dangerous pathogens that are stored at many of the AP stations. For years, the only working safeguard for those facilities was their specialization itself. For example, during the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan, the staff of the Tajik AP Station, fearing that one of the country's warring parties would use the station's stored pathogens to commit terror attacks, decided to destroy their entire culture collection. This is the only known example of protective action by an AP facility. But were other AP facilities to be similarly threatened by aggression, it is not clear whether they would react in the same way.
Except for a limited number of AP facilities that receive international funding to improve security (see below), most of the facilities have very poor security and safety systems. Intrusions on the territory of these facilities by outsiders are common, due sometimes to absent or damaged fences. In addition, due to a combination of factors, including the economic crisis, the desperate financial situation of AP facilities and their employees, the replacement of Soviet era employees by new younger recruits, and the absence of background checks for new employees, the probability that dangerous material might be diverted by insiders is greater today.
As information about the unique Soviet AP system and its post-independence hardships entered the public domain, funding began flowing into collaborative programs involving the NIS' AP facilities that mainly were aimed at reducing the proliferation threat of biological weapons. Foreign governments have developed a range of new initiatives addressing the biological weapons nonproliferation agenda. As far as permitted by the existing legal framework, these programs have helped AP facilities in some republics pool their efforts in a series of joint projects.
The BWPPP is funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) of the U.S. Department of Defense and is part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The mission of the BWPPP is to deter the threat of biological terrorism and prevent the spread of biological weapons technology, agents, and know-how from the Eurasian continent. The BWPP supports the effort in four fields:
Participation in the BWPPP is supported by intergovernmental treaties on Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) and executive agreements on biological threat reduction and elimination of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) infrastructure. Intergovernmental CTR treaties are currently in force in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. All these nations have also signed implementing agreements, except Russia, whose BWPPP participation is limited to cooperative biological research under the agreement on the ISTC. For the period 2001-2011, the U.S. government has pledged $71.3 million to the BWPPP biosecurity and biosafety programs, of which $62.3 million has been disbursed. An additional $97.6 million has been earmarked for cooperative biological research (of which $53.3 million has been disbursed), and $586.1 million for the TADR program (of which $84.1 million has been disbursed).
The mission of the ISTC, an intergovernmental organization founded by the United States, Japan, the European Union, and the Russian Federation on November 27, 1992, is to finance peaceful science and technology projects initiated at research institutions and facilities in Russia and other NIS by scholars possessing knowledge and expertise in the field of WMD. A similar body, the STCU, was founded in July 1995 by Canada, the United States, Sweden, and Ukraine to provide support for Ukrainian scientists. Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan subsequently joined the STCU and the European Union replaced Sweden. The STCU provides funding for projects in different fields of science, including biotechnology. Between 1992 and 2003, the ISTC sponsored 397 biotechnology projects worth $146,770,981, or a quarter of all funding disbursed through the ISTC during that same period.
The EU Framework Programs focus on socioeconomic priorities, pooling the effort in research and specialist training, and better coordination of research and international innovation initiatives inside and outside the EU. The 5th Framework Program that ran from 1999 through 2002 and mainly targeted healthcare, held a project tender for the Copernicus program among scientists of the NIS. The Fifth Framework Program budget totaled EUR 14.96 billion, of which EUR 28 million were allocated to the Copernicus program. Each project must involve at least two organizations from two EU member states (or one member state and an associated state, or one of these and the Joint Research Center) to which the participation of NIS organizations can be added. (Part of the European Commission, the Joint Research Centre is a research-based organization that provides scientific advice and technical know-how to support EU policies.)
As implementation mechanisms for some biological weapons nonproliferation programs are not yet fully functional, only a few of the NIS have been able to take part in those programs, and have their AP facilities involved as well. The programs completed so far have focused on creating jobs for AP facilities' researchers as well as upgrading physical security and biosafety at these facilities.
Kazakhstan's AP system is comprised of one main institute–the Kazakh Scientific Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases (KSCQZD, formerly the Central Asian Anti-plague Institute) in Almaty, 10 regional stations, and 17 field stations. The AP system monitors plague-endemic areas, which cover 40% of the Kazakh territory. Isolated cases of human plague occur in Kazakhstan every year.
KSCQZD scientists have contributed to several research projects undertaken as part of the EU Framework Programs. Four KSCQZD researchers were involved as co-investigators in a project entitled Marmot Biodiversity Conservation in Eurasia, which ran from 1994 through 1998. Another seven scientists contributed to a six-month project under the Fourth EU Framework Program in 1999. The Fifth EU Framework Program in 2000-2003 provided funding for a project involving 23 KSCQZD researchers, who had teamed up with researchers from Kazakhstan's Institute of Mathematics to develop a mathematical activity forecasting model for natural plague foci.
KSCQZD has been involved in ISTC projects since 1999. To date, the KSCQZD has completed four joint projects in conjunction with U.S. partners, worth a total of U.S. $952,967. Another three ISTC projects worth U.S. $456,110 are underway, funded by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Thanks to Canadian government funding disbursed via the ISTC, KSCQZD was able to host two research conferences in 2004, involving plague researchers from all NIS. One particular benefit of ISTC projects is that they facilitate the supply of new laboratory equipment and provide training for researchers. In 2000 and 2001, 11 KSCQZD researchers took a two-month training course in advanced laboratory research techniques at U.S. and British laboratories. With their newly acquired skills and state of the art laboratory equipment obtained from the ISTC projects, KSCQZD has now instituted methods for the molecular study and identification of suspected bioterrorism materials.
The CTR Program provided funding for two joint projects involving KSCQZD in 2000-2002. The first supported security upgrades at the facility, while the second one provided KSCQZD with Internet access. As a result, the outer perimeter of KSCQZD was renovated; a new fence made of 310 lightweight concrete panels 2.4 meters (m) high was installed around the perimeter; this fence was topped by 1,300 m of razor wire; the metal elements of the fence were rust-proof; and construction work was done on a new guard station, which includes a guard room, waiting room, bathroom, vestibule, and metal gates. To improve visibility, 340 trees and 1,360 bushes were removed; several obsolete buildings were torn down, including a former medical storage building, rabbit hutch, and two sheds. In addition, eleven outdoor light poles were installed around the perimeter of the Center grounds; 2,500 m of AVVG electrical cable was installed in an asbestos-cement conduit underground and within a 15 millimeter-diameter metal conduit along the wall; 25 searchlights with 500-W incandescent flood lamps were installed; and façade lighting for the secure buildings was mounted on the internal perimeter fence.
The project's focus was on securing the institute's culture collection as well, which houses over 2,000 highly dangerous strains of pathogens. The effort included replacement of the entry door to the collection by a metal one with combination locks to prevent unauthorized access by personnel other than collection employees, protection of all windows with metal grids, and deployment of an electrical alarm system connected to a central control post at the guard station. A telecommunications project completed as part of the effort gave KSCQZD a computer network with Internet access via an in-house satellite antenna.
A new CTR initiative consists of improving disease surveillance in Kazakhstan. After an appropriate amendment was made to the intergovernmental treaty between Kazakhstan and the United States on December 8, 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense officially launched the TADR project in Kazakhstan. Five Kazakhstani AP stations–Atyrau, Jambyl, Mangghystau, Shymkent, and Taldy-Qorghan–began receiving new laboratory equipment from the TADR project in January 2005. As part of cooperative biological research under the BWPPP, Kazakhstani AP researchers have teamed up with researchers from the country's sanitary epidemiological system to study anthrax. The project, scheduled to run for three years, stands to receive $445,900 in funding.
The National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) was established in Tbilisi in 1996 on the premises of the former Georgian AP station, when the latter was reorganized to also act as Georgia's sanitation and epidemic watch organization. This change came as a result of a healthcare reform completed as part of a joint project between U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Georgian Healthcare Ministry.
NCDC researchers have actively benefited from ISTC funding since 2002. Five ongoing ISTC projects involve NCDC staff. They are:
NCDC has been involved in the BWPPP effort since 2003. A series of projects have been completed to reinforce physical security at the NCDC reference laboratory, install security features to safeguard its culture collection, and outfit an epidemiological module in Batumi, established on the premises of a former AP facility. Once construction is completed on the central reference laboratory at the Georgian Institute of Bacteriophages, Microbiology and Viral Research (GIBMVR), all dangerous microorganisms, including the NCDC culture collection, will be relocated to the central storeroom at the permanent reference laboratory at the GIBMVR.
The Center for the Prophylaxis and Quarantine of Most Hazardous Infections (CPQMHI) was established in Tashkent in 1999 by merging three former AP facilities in Nukus and Tashkent.
In 2003, a joint project was launched under the BWPPP to enhance the physical security of the CPQMHI's culture collection, which contains over 1000 strains of pathogens. The project resulted in replacement of the entry door to the collection by a metal door with combination lock, installation of electrical alarm system, and procurement of locked refrigerators for dangerous pathogens.
CPQMHI scientists are already involved in a research project as part of the BWPPP cooperative biological research effort. The project focuses on epizootological and epidemiological mapping of anthrax, plague, and tularemia in Uzbekistan.
The TADR program, also underway in Uzbekistan, will fund the reinforcement of physical security for a provisional culture collection due to be eventually consolidated at the central reference laboratory to be built on the CPQMHI premises.
Russia's AP system consists of five AP institutes, located in Volgograd, Irkutsk, Rostov, Saratov, and Stavropol, 12 regional AP stations, and 14 field AP stations.
Although the majority of ISTC projects are carried out in Russia, participation of researchers from the former Soviet AP system is minimal. So far, only one ISTC project has involved the Stavropol AP Institute as a secondary institute, where Stavropol was announced as a supporting institute.
In the next five years, the AP facilities of Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan will take part in U.S.-funded TADR projects aimed at strengthening dangerous pathogen detection and response networks, enabling discovery of diversion or accidental release of biological materials. TADR will help to remove pathogen collections from multiple Soviet-era "sentinel stations" through secure transport to a central laboratory for consolidation. In addition to secure consolidation, TADR plans to modernize diagnostic capabilities to: minimize the need for pathogen retention at vulnerable field stations; provide real-time disease information; enhance forensic microbiology capabilities; promote transparency of research; and develop a network of trained, ethical scientists to prevent, deter, and contain a biological attack. In each country the following activities within AP facilities are planned:
The TADR program has plans to expand to Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine.
Over the next five years, BWPP cooperative biological research programs designed to "convert" military scientists to peaceful research will involve plague researchers from Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Three projects involving these nations' AP facilities have already received approval from the U.S. Civilian Research & Development Foundation, a body authorized to handle this line of research. They are:
To date, funding has been authorized for 14 ISTC research projects involving plague scientists. Along with Georgian and Kazakh scientists, the projects will involve plague scientists from the Armenian Center of Prophylaxis of Especially Dangerous Infections (formerly, Armenian Anti-plague Station), the Republican Center for Quarantine and Highly Dangerous Infections in Kyrgyzstan (formerly, Kyrgyz Anti-plague Station), as well as the Tajik Anti-plague Station and Russia's "Mikrob" Plague Research Institute. The latter will be joining the Institute of Engineering Immunology project entitled Development of Recombinant Protein-Peptide Immune Modulators as a co-implementer. Funding has also been authorized for two STCU projects involving plague scientists from Georgia and Ukraine. The ISTC and STCU projects with approved funding will enable plague scientists in Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine to join in a collaborative research effort.
The isolated fractions of the former Soviet AP system that once served both civilian and military purposes continue to operate in the 11 NIS, playing a critical role in containing plague and other dangerous infectious diseases in the former Soviet republics. As none of the NIS are in a position to provide the full measure of funding required to ensure safe operation of their AP facilities, biological weapons nonproliferation programs initiated outside these nations provide crucial assistance, offering new jobs for researchers and assuring the safe operation of AP facilities.
While some AP facilities are already involved in collaborative projects, the number of projects in this field and the amount of funding they receive are comparatively small. The main reason AP facilities in the NIS are only marginally involved in collaborative efforts is that many of the former republics still lack proper implementation mechanisms. Another reason is that AP facilities in the NIS lack the resources to draft collaborative research proposals, having no employees on staff proficient enough in English to prepare research proposals for prospective collaborators; they also lack computer technology that could help in their search of sources of funding and ensure communication with collaboration partners.
But the future looks promising for the AP systems in the NIS as plans are made to tap the valuable experience of plague researchers in the fight against lethal infections and in advancing the common cause of deterring biological terrorism. Implementation of the BWPP programs as well as biotechnology initiatives of ISTC and STCU will help to strengthen activity of AP systems in nine of the eleven NIS.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.
A new NTI | bio report released today on the sidelines of the Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties, “Strengthening Global Systems to Prevent and Respond to High-Consequence Biological Threats,” outlines actionable recommendations for the international community to bolster prevention and response capabilities for high-consequence biological events.
Understanding biological weapons, as well as biosafety, biosecurity, and BW nonproliferation, is the focus of this tutorial.
The Korean Peninsula is one of the most volatile and heavily militarized places in the world, carrying tremendous risk of conflict and the potential for catastrophic nuclear exchange.