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FEATURE STORY 47
and was debriefed by U.S. intelligence. In 2004 he took up
his current position at the National Center for Biodefense,
where Alibek is a distinguished professor.
Regarding the progress of biotechnology, Popov told me,
"It seems to most people like something that happens in
a few places, a few biological labs. Yet now it is becoming
widespread knowledge." Furthermore, he stressed, it is
knowledge that is Janus-faced in its potential applications.
"When I prepare my lectures on genetic engineering, what-
ever I open, I see the possibilities to make harm or to use
the same things for good---to make a biological weapon or
to create a treatment against disease."
The "new class of weapons" that Alibek describes Pop-
ov s creating in Biohazard is a case in point. Into a relatively
innocuous bacterium responsible for a low-mortality pneu-
monia, Legionella pneumophila, Popov and his researchers
spliced mammalian DNA that expressed fragments of myelin
protein, the electrically insulating fatty layer that sheathes
our neurons. In test animals, the pneumonia infection came
and went, but the myelin fragments bor ne by the recombi-
nant Legionella goaded the animals immune systems to
read their own natural myelin as pathogenic and to attack
it. Brain damage, paralysis, and nearly 100 percent mortality
resulted: Popov had created a biological weapon that in e ect
triggered rapid multiple sclerosis. (Popov s claims can be cor-
roborated: in recent years, scientists researching treatments
for MS have employed similar methods on test animals with
When I asked about the prospects for creating bioweapons
through synthetic biology, Popov mentioned the polio vir us
synthesized in 2002. "Very prominent people like [Anthony]
Fauci at the NIH said, Now we know it can be done. " Popov
paused. "You know, that s...naïve. In 1981, I described how
to carry out a project to synthesize small but biologically
active vir uses. Nobody at Biopreparat had even a little doubt
it could be done. We had no DNA synthesizers then. I had 50
people doing DNA synthesis manually, step by step. One step
was about three hours, where today, with the synthesizer,
it could be a few minutes---it could be less than a minute.
Nevertheless, already the idea was that we would produce
one vir us a month."
E ectively, Popov said, Biopreparat had few restrictions
on manpower. "If you wanted a hundred people involved, it
was a hundred. If a thousand, a thousand." It is a startling
picture: an industrial program that consumed tons of chemi-
cals and marshalled large numbers of biologists to constr uct,
over months, a few hundred bases of a gene that coded for
a single protein.
Though some dismiss Biopreparat s pioneering e orts
because the Russians relied on technology that is now anti-
quated, this is what makes them a good guide to what could
be done today with cheap, widely available biotechnology.
Splicing into pathogens synthesized mammalian genes cod-
ing for the short chains of amino acids called peptides (that
is, genes just a few hundred bases long) was handily within
reach of Biopreparat s DNA synthesis capabilities. E orts on
this scale are easily reproducible with today s tools.
What the Russians Did
The Soviet bioweapons program was vast and labyrinthine;
not even Ken Alibek, its top scienti c manager, knew every-
thing. In assessing the extent of its accomplishment---and
thus the danger posed by small groups armed with modern
technology---we are to some degree dependent on Serguei
Popov s version of things. Since his claims are so controver-
sial, a question must be answered: Many (perhaps most)
people would prefer to believe that Popov is lying. Is he?
Popov s a liation with Alibek is a strike against him at
the U.S. Ar my Medical Research Institute of Infectious Dis-
eases (Usamriid) at Fort Detrick, MD, where Biopreparat s
former top scientist has his critics. Alibek, one knowledge-
able person told me, e ectively "entered the storytelling busi-
ness when he came to America." Alibek s critics charge that
because he received consulting fees while brie ng U.S. sci-
entists and o cials, he exaggerated Soviet bioweaponeering
achievements. In particular, some critics reject Alibek s claims
that the U.S.S.R. had combined Ebola and other viruses---in
order to create what Alibek calls "chimeras." The necessary
technology, they insist, didn t yet exist. When I interviewed
Alibek in 2003, however, he was adamant that Biopreparat
had weaponized Ebola.
Alibek and Popov obviously have an interest in talking up
Russia s bioweapons. But neither I, nor others with whom
I ve compared notes, have ever caught Popov in a false state-
ment. One must listen to him carefully, however. Regarding
Ebola chimeras, he told me when I rst interviewed him in
2003, "You can speculate about a plague-Ebola combination.
I know that those who ran the Soviet bioweapons program
The Russians' achievements tell us what is possible. At least some of
what the Soviet bioweaponeers did with difficulty and expense can
now be done easily and cheaply. And all of what they accomplished
can be duplicated with time and money.
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