Ebola crisis rekindles concerns about secret research in Russian military labs

As mentioned in a previous post: Islamic State jihadists may infect themselves to spread Ebola in the West

Furthermore, it has also already mutated over 300 hundred times in 2014 through observing its genomic sequencing. A bio attack could easily come from the Russians without a trace and easily have blame placed on islamic jihadists.

 

She was an ordinary lab technician with an uncommonly dangerous assignment: drawing blood from Ebola-infected animals in a secret military laboratory. When she cut herself at work one day, she decided to keep quiet, fearing she’d be in trouble. Then the illness struck.

“By the time she turned to a doctor for help, it was too late,” one of her overseers, a former bio­weapons scientist, said of the accident years afterward. The woman died quickly and was buried, according to one account, in a “sack filled with calcium hypochlorite,” or powdered bleach.

The 1996 incident might have been forgotten except for the pathogen involved — a highly lethal strain of Ebola virus — and where the incident occurred: inside a restricted Russian military lab that was once part of the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program. Years ago, the same facility in the Moscow suburb of Sergiev Posad cultivated microbes for use as tools of war. Today, much of what goes on in the lab remains unknown.

The fatal lab accident and a similar one in 2004 offer a rare glimpse into a 35-year history of Soviet and Russian interest in the Ebola virus. The research began amid intense secrecy with an ambitious effort to assess Ebola’s potential as a biological weapon, and it later included attempts to manipulate the virus’s genetic coding, U.S. officials and researchers say. Those efforts ultimately failed as Soviet scientists stumbled against natural barriers that make Ebola poorly suited for bio­warfare.

The bioweapons program officially ended in 1991, but Ebola research continued in Defense Ministry laboratories, where it remains largely invisible despite years of appeals by U.S. officials to allow greater transparency. Now, at a time when the world is grappling with an unprecedented Ebola crisis, the wall of secrecy surrounding the labs looms still larger, arms-control experts say, feeding conspiracy theories and raising suspicions.

“The bottom line is, we don’t know what they’re doing with any of the pathogens in their possession,” said Amy Smithson, a biological weapons expert who has traveled to several of the labs and written extensively about the Soviet-era weapons complex.

At least four military labs have remained off-limits to any outside scrutiny since the end of the Cold War, even as civilian-run institutions adopted more transparent policies and permitted collaborations with foreign researchers and investors, U.S. officials and weapons experts say. Even acknowledging — as most experts do — that Russia halted work on offensive bio­weapons decades ago, the program’s opacity is a recurring irritant in diplomatic relations and a source of worry for security and health experts who cite risks ranging from unauthorized or rogue experiments to the theft or accidental escape of deadly microbes.

Enhancing the threat is the facilities’ collection of deadly germs, which presumably includes the strains Soviet scientists tried to manipulate to make them hardier, deadlier and more difficult to detect, said Smithson, now a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a research institute based in Monterey, Calif.

We have ample accounts from defectors that these are not just strains from nature, but strains that have been deliberately enhanced,” she said.

A notorious past

The facilities that reported the accidents have a notorious past, having once been part of a larger complex of Soviet laboratories and testing facilities devoted to the science of biological warfare.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin confirmed the existence of the secret program to top U.S. officials in the early 1990s after declaring an end to bio­weapons research in the months after the Soviet Union’s dismantling. Afterward, successive U.S. administrations dispatched experts and resources to the former Soviet republics to help secure dangerous pathogens and support the transition to peaceful research at civilian-run labs, including Vector, one of two known repositories for the smallpox virus.

U.S. experts collected first-person accounts of the research and visited outdoor testing facilities where dogs, monkeys and other animals were exposed to deadly pathogens, encounters described in the Pulitzer Prize-winning history “The Dead Hand,” by former Washington Post editor David Hoffman. But Russian officials refused to grant access to military laboratories and never offered a full accounting of past weapons research or described how they disposed of weaponized biological agents.

But more recently, new historical scholarship, drawing from Soviet-era records and interviews with Russian scientists, has offered deeper insight into Soviet efforts to make weapons out of a wide range of pathogens, from anthrax bacteria to the viruses that cause Marburg fever and Ebola.

According to these accounts, much of the Ebola research appears to have been devoted to developing vaccines to protect Red Army troops against the disease. But scientists also ran experiments intended to optimize the virus’s growth and isolate the parts of its genome that make it deadly, said Raymond Zilinskas, a microbiologist and co-author of “The Soviet Biological Weapons Program,” an exhaustive history published in 2012 by Harvard University Press.

As Soviet scientists worked in secret to manipulate the virus, other teams constructed large fermenters and production facilities that could reproduce the altered pathogens on an industrial scale, Zilinskas said.

“There is only one reason why you would have a large production of these viruses, and that’s for offensive purposes,”said Zilinskas, who, along with co-author Milton Leitenberg, spent more than a decade interviewing Russian scientists and other officials with direct knowledge of the program.

In the years just before the Soviet Union’s collapse, the program’s managers plunged into novel experiments — with code names such as “Hunter” and “Bonfire” — that sought to create super­bugs that would resist common antibiotics, or combine elements of different microbes to increase their lethality. Sergei Popov, a former Vector scientist who defected to the West, described work on creating a “completely artificial agent with new symptoms, probably with no ways to treat it.”

Nobody would recognize it. Nobody would know how to deal with it,” Popov said in an interview broadcast on the PBS program “Nova” in 2002, a few years after the scientist settled in the United States. Popov declined a request for an interview this week.

Full article: Ebola crisis rekindles concerns about secret research in Russian military labs (Washington Post)

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