Defense Department helps secure former Soviet 'antiplague' sites

Sites established as a means of detecting, assessing and thwarting spread of dangerous diseases are viewed as potential proliferation and public health threats.

The Defense Department has been increasingly engaged in efforts to secure from proliferation dozens of former Soviet pathogen collection and research stations, a senior U.S. official said recently.

Still, most of the "antiplague system" institutes and regional and field stations across 11 former Soviet states lack sufficient safety and security and their scientists on average are poorly paid, a nongovernmental expert said.

The Pentagon has budgeted $61 million for security at facilities in six countries in fiscal 2006, Andrew Weber, senior adviser for Cooperative Threat Reduction policy at the Office of Secretary of Defense, said this month at a panel discussion on the antiplague sites.

By comparison, the Defense Department provided only $2 million toward the effort in 1998, he said.

"We have now a much more comprehensive program than when we started in the mid-1990s and we have an extraordinary team of experts both directly working for the DOD team, and other U.S. government agencies, and also in the NGO community," he said.

The annual amount significantly increased following the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, he said. Other U.S. and foreign agencies also assist in securing the facilities, he said.


The antiplague system facilities, 88 sites established by czarist Russia and Soviet Union as a means of detecting, assessing and thwarting the spread of dangerous diseases and most still existing today, are viewed today as potential proliferation and public health threats.

Located in regions where many dangerous diseases such as anthrax, bubonic plague and tularemia are endemic, or through which exotic diseases might spread, some facilities also fed deadly pathogens into the Soviet Union's biological weapons program and continue to collect and retain such material.

While viewed a proliferation risk today, the stations with improvements could provide an effective network for early detection and prevention of the spread of infectious disease, though such activities have been decreasing due to insufficient funding, staff and equipment, experts say.

Security concerns regarding the facilities are described in a draft report prepared by the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies that was funded by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Problems identified included improperly stored samples, aging research facilities, weak or nonexistent security, and underpaid scientists with expertise in biological weapons-related work who might sell their expertise for cash.

U.S. funding, Weber said, supports physical security upgrades, biosafety improvements, modernization of research and storage equipment, consolidation of research and storage activities, and collaborative research programs intended to engage former military scientists in peaceful work.

Assistance efforts have been under way for several years in Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, and new programs began this year in Azerbaijan and Ukraine, he said.

He noted the program is funding in Georgia construction of a central, national reference laboratory, where all of the country's dangerous microorganism specimens will be relocated.

Collaborative activities are somewhat limited in Russia for lack of a U.S.-Russian government bilateral agreement, Weber said.

"We've made some progress but it's been difficult," he said. "We need an authorized executive agent from the central government so we … can better meet Russian Federation priorities and better understand Russian Federation priorities at the government level," he said.

Concerns Persist

Despite efforts so far, much work needs to be done to secure antiplague system facilities, according to panel speaker Sonia Ben Ouagrham, co-author of the Monterey Institute study.

"One of the main proliferation threats is the risk of brain drain," she said.

Salaries of facility scientists now average from $20 to $100 per month, varying by country, Ben Ouagrham said.

The potential diversion of pathogens is another main threat, she said.

"Most of the facilities we visited have extensive collections of pathogens that are highly dangerous. These pathogens … most of them have been isolated from nature. But in some cases they are highly virulent, naturally highly virulent, and antibiotic resistant. They also have pathogens that were engineered for BW [biological weapons] purposes during the Soviet times," she said.

"Very few of the facilities have a sufficient security system," she said, citing for instance insufficient personnel and upkeep of facilities.

Ben Ouagrham said the study's authors found no evidence of proliferation since the Soviet network broke apart. She said, though, that good information would be difficult to obtain because of poor security and record keeping, and perhaps because of facilities' interest in avoiding negative attention.

The Defense Department does not yet have programs in five of the former Soviet states with facilities - Moldova, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Weber said he anticipates more U.S. funding in the future could go to securing the stations as work is completed on other Cooperative Threat Reduction programs.

"I think as some of the legacy programs, really high-ticket programs in the area of nuclear disarmament and nuclear security finish some of their major infrastructure investments … in future years the portion of overall funding that goes to biological threat reduction will continue to increase," he said.

[Editor's Note: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.]