From bioweapons lab, a formula for peace
A MAJOR CHAPTER in biological warfare quietly closed in June with the death of Lev S. Sandakhchiev, an extraordinary 70-year-old Russian scientist who until last year had led the former Soviet Union’s most terrifying center of viral research. Located in remote Siberia, the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, informally known as Vector -- worthy of James Bond -- had throughout the Cold War been turning the world’s most hideous diseases into weapons. A secret research facility, Vector had long been the target of American intelligence efforts and, as it turned out, justified anxiety.
For decades, the U.S. could only speculate about the lab’s frightful accomplishments. Then Sandakhchiev made a courageous decision. A compact, wiry, chain-smoking scientist, he grasped after the Soviet Union’s collapse that the survival of his lab and its scientists depended on abandoning his life’s long work in bioweapons and opening up to the West.
In 1993, he astonished Russian and American scientists at an international meeting by shouting the Russian equivalent of “Let’s cut the crap” when some of his colleagues denied that Moscow had long violated the anti-germ warfare treaty it had been among the first to sign. In 1999, Sandakhchiev further outraged some of his colleagues by permitting an American journalist to tour Vector and write about what was done there and his hopes for peaceful cooperation with American scientists. The implications of what I saw have haunted me ever since.
Behind barbed wire, Vector sprawled over 100 buildings and included warrens of animal pens, massive labs designed to contain smallpox, anthrax and plague germs, and even its own cemetery, in which a scientist who had accidentally injected himself with Marburg virus had been buried in a zinc-lined grave. Vector had been experimenting with viruses such as Marburg and Ebola, nature’s own weapons of mass destruction, to which there were no antidotes.
The scale was breathtaking. The virus that causes smallpox had been mankind’s greatest scourge. Microscopic quantities could kill millions. Yet Vector had secretly produced tons.
Now a Vector spin-off makes cosmetics. The lab also remains one of two World Health Organization-designated repositories of the smallpox virus; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is the other. And Vector is seeking WHO designation as a global center for combating avian flu.
Sandakhchiev’s scientific glasnost allowed him to preserve his institute and stop his scientists from being recruited by Iran and other germ weapon-hunting states and terrorist groups. But he couldn’t have done it without a visionary, underappreciated American program. Created in 1991 by Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia, and Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program in 1998 provided an emergency $1-million grant -- chump change by government standards -- to underwrite Sandakhchiev’s outreach to the West.
As a result, Vector was able to spurn Iran’s offers, and the United States was finally able to confirm defector reports and understand other key aspects of the Soviet Union’s clandestine germ empire, which at its peak in the late 1980s employed about 60,000 scientists and technicians in secret facilities throughout the land.
In the end, Sandakhchiev’s biggest contribution may have been his example, which helped persuade many other Soviet scientists to abandon secrecy and turn their expertise in chemical and biological warfare to peaceful pursuits.
Needless to say, some nationalistic hard-liners in Russia resisted scientific exchanges and Vector’s growing ties to the West. For their part, some U.S. officials suspected that military work was continuing at Vector and elsewhere. Such fears were largely but not totally allayed, at least at Vector, by 2000, when audits of its grants showed that the dollars Washington had invested there -- $30 million at last count -- had been spent as Congress intended.
In the battle against germ weapons, as in medicine itself, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For about $500 million a year -- about the cost of two days of the Iraq war -- the Nunn-Lugar threat-reduction programs have helped deny nuclear, chemical and deadly biological materials and expertise to hostile states and terrorists.
Despite this record, the program has often struggled for funding, particularly its biological work. In the year after 9/11 and the anthrax-letter attacks, Nunn-Lugar funding actually dipped. The U.S. is spending lots of money to stop the spread of deadly pathogens, but not enough in Russia, which only 15 years ago had the world’s most advanced bioweapons program. Spending just $50 million to $70 million more over five years would help Russia consolidate and safeguard its pathogens in about a dozen new repositories, benefiting both nations’ biosecurity.
Both the Pentagon and the State Department sent wreaths to Sandakhchiev’s funeral. Appropriately so. Sandakhchiev may well have taken some terrible secrets to his grave. But it’s hard to overestimate his contribution to demonstrating that archenemies of 50 years can cooperate to battle disease, rather than spread it for military gain.
A far more meaningful tribute to him would be increased spending to stop the proliferation of the world’s deadliest germs and other sources of unconventional weapons.