Russian official warns of biological weapons

by Jennifer Chen | 10/9/98 5:00am

Biological weapons present a current international threat because they are easier to develop and use than nuclear weapons, a former high official in the Soviet biological weapons program warned last night.

In the inaugural speech of a series titled "Russia and the West," Dr. Kenneth Alibek explained the dangers of biological weapons in a post-Cold War era to approximately 70 people in the Hinman Forum of the Rockefeller Center.

Unlike nuclear weapons which mainly involve political issues and are not considered weapons of real war, Alibek said biological weapons are thought of as "doomsday weapons" because they have the ability to wipe out an entire population.

In his speech, Alibek quoted a popular Russian expression: "If you want to destroy something, make it big." Consequently, Russian scientists have been working for years to develop new technology in an effort to combat its enemy, the United States, he said.

Alibek said the world now faces the threat of biological terrorism in the form of viral and bacterial epidemics and said he believes Ebola will be an especially preferred virus to spread since it currently has no cure.

Besides the high mortality rate, he said the advantages of biological weapons include the ability of agents to escape from a country completely undetected after administering the toxin and the inability of countries to protect themselves from these weapons.

Alibek said it is also comparatively easy to start and spread epidemics. Terrorists can contaminate the food and water supply or use aerosol sprays to spread the weapons, thereby killing thousands of people.

In an answer to the issue of how to diminish the threat of biological warfare, Alibek outlined three areas for improvement.

In the political arena, Alibek said the United States must attempt to develop procedures for mandatory inspections of Russian facilities.

He also said new technology, protective garments and physical protection systems need to be developed to counter the threat of biological weapons.

Finally, scientists must advance medicine beyond simple vaccines and discover a method to increase the power of the human body's natural immune system. Vaccinating an entire population of people is a costly and highly unrealistic goal for a country, Alibek said.

Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the danger of the spread of biological weapons has increased.

According to Alibek, many scientists who formerly worked in Russian facilities are currently unemployed or under-employed.

Unlike Alibek, who defected to the United States in 1992, these scientists remain in Russia and some may be willing to sell their knowledge in exchange for money.

In response to this threat, the United States signed a law allowing Russian scientists into the country, and it also set aside money to fund certain projects for them.

Unfortunately, Alibek said, no one can trust Russia until it opens and dismantles the facilities that develop biological weapons.

Alibek said while Russia is attempting to maintain its biological weaponry after its political breakdown, the United States must consider future threats such as China, countries in central Asia and former Soviet countries.

Though Alibek said "Russia is now a weakened country," he said biological weapons are easy to manufacture and difficult to combat in comparison to nuclear weapons.

When questioned about his past involvement in the creation of biological weapons, Alibek said the American mentality of justice differed from that of the former Soviet Union.

He said Russians view the United States as a villain which has tried in the past to obliterate the Russian way of life. But, he said, it was painful, as "a doctor, [to] develop weapons to kill people."

As a private consultant for U.S. government agencies, Alibek now works to impede the development of biological weapons.

The speech was sponsored by the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding.

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