Biological threat reduction in Central Asia

By Togzhan Kassenova | July 18, 2008

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union weaponized plague bacteria for possible use against the United States. Earlier this year, the deadly bacteria finally made its way into the country–albeit under peaceful circumstances. After five years of negotiation between U.S. and Kazakh officials, a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane transported samples of bubonic and pneumonic plague bacteria from laboratories in Kazakhstan to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colorado. U.S. and Kazakh scientists will now study the bacteria with the goal of developing new methods to diagnose and treat the plague.

The shipment was part of larger cooperative biological threat reduction process between the United States and former Soviet republics in Central Asia. This biological threat reduction is aimed at protecting against diseases that occur naturally in the region and which could also be exploited by bioterrorists. The bulk of projects in this field is funded through the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program administered by the Defense Department. Additionally, the State Department, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Agriculture administer related projects.

Established in 1991, the CTR Program was an unprecedented effort to help the disintegrating Soviet Union deal with proliferation threats. The initial focus of the program was on the nuclear weapons inherited by three non-Russian republics (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) and on Russia’s nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities. Four-hundred million dollars were originally allocated for the nuclear-related projects. Following the successful denuclearization of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, and with a bulk of the most pressing Russian nuclear proliferation threats resolved, CTR efforts turned their focus to dealing with biothreats. The shift also reflects the larger emphasis that nations around the world are placing on the role of infectious disease surveillance in international security.

The U.S. government has invested more than $430 million from 1998 through 2007 in its biological threat reduction programs, which includes funding for projects in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. 1 Annual funding levels have been steadily increasing every year. During this period Kazakhstan received roughly $107.4 million for biothreat reduction projects and Uzbekistan received $78.7 million.2

Central Asia was once at the heart of the Soviet biological warfare program. The world’s largest bioweapons facility, which had a capacity to produce 300 tons of anthrax a year, was located in northern Kazakhstan in Stepnogorsk. And during the Cold War, Soviet scientists tested biological weapons on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea and on Ustyurt Plateau in the Uzbek steppe. The thousands of Soviet scientists who participated in the bioweapons programs worked daily to protect their country against biological attack and to ensure that the Soviet Union had bioweapons at its disposal, if necessary.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the defense and civilian biological weapons programs were thrown into crisis. By 1992, Moscow had abandoned most military and civilian sites related to the programs, and governments in the newly independent republics faced the challenge of dealing with their inheritance. Facilities housing collections of deadly pathogens and microorganisms were left either poorly protected or completely unprotected and vulnerable to theft. The military program abandoned Vozrozhdeniye Island, which had been used as a fabrication and testing ground for biological weapons, leaving caches of anthrax buried underground and other dangerous microorganisms present in its soil. Thousands of scientists with critical expertise lost their jobs, went unpaid, or received meager salaries insufficient to support their families. In addition, the region had to cope with continual outbreaks of highly infectious disease, to which it was naturally prone. Coupled with a severe socioeconomic crisis and Central Asia’s proximity to unstable states, the Soviet bioweapons legacy posed several challenges. Central Asian governments were unaware of the activities taking place inside the most sensitive facilities involved in the Soviet military program. The resources that the Central Asian governments could dedicate to conversion activities were severely limited, making CTR funding crucial. (The United States and Kazakhstan first signed a cooperative threat reduction agreement in 1993 to provide for assistance with denuclearization. The agreement was extended in 2000. In Uzbekistan, cooperation began much later. The initial umbrella agreement wasn’t signed until 2001.)

During the first decade of cooperative biological threat reduction programs, efforts focused on dismantling bioweapons facilities and destroying bioweapons agents in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the areas where most key biofacilities were concentrated. By 2000, three key Stepnogorsk buildings were destroyed, while the full greenfielding of the weapons production and testing buildings was completed by 2007. CTR funds also improved the physical protection, safety, and security of the facilities that housed dangerous bio-agents. The destruction of bioweapons facilities on Vozrozhdeniye Island and 150 tons of anthrax in 2002 was followed by the decontamination of the Uzbek part of the island where military facilities were formally located.

The biothreat reduction process in Central Asia has since reached a qualitatively different and positive stage. While initial projects dealt mostly with dismantlement, destruction, and elimination, ongoing work emphasizes cooperation and collaborative research. Central Asian scientists are working with their U.S. counterparts to strengthen detection and diagnosis of disease outbreaks and to improve the response to natural epidemics and potential bio-attacks. For example, funding was allocated to support Kazakh epidemiological studies of Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever, as well as studies on factors of anthrax foci. The CTR program also funds Uzbek scientists working on epizootiological and epidemiological mapping of anthrax, plague, and tularaemia, as well as the surveillance of human and animal brucellosis.

In another project, Kazakh bioscientists mapped and completed the genetic fingerprinting of 93 strains of anthrax found in Kazakhstan. Together with their Georgian colleagues, these scientists also jointly diagnosed a case of avian influenza and diagnosed and identified the source of an outbreak of Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever–a tick, in Uzbekistan. Kazakh scientists from the Republic Sanitary Epidemiological Station together with their colleagues from relevant research institutes are implementing a comprehensive study of brucellosis in southern Kazakhstan. This study is especially important from a public health standpoint since there is a high incidence rate of brucellosis among the animal and human population in the country; it is highest in the areas bordering with China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The ongoing project will allow scientists to diagnose brucellosis within a 2-hour to 1-day period instead of the current 48-hour to 12-day span.3

Several recent projects promise to further help counter highly infectious diseases. The United States intends to fund research by the Kazakh Scientific Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases in Almaty on especially dangerous pathogens.4 A contract of $800,000 was awarded to Kazakhstan’s Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems in Otar to work on an avian influenza virus. The work began in 2007. The purpose of the project is to monitor avian flu agents among wild and domestic birds, as well as among people with a high risk of contracting the disease (e.g. employees of battery farms, medical workers, and hunters) and to study the virus’s biological properties. An important spin-off effect of similar projects sponsored by internationally funded programs is that participating facilities often receive up-to-date technology, which allows the scientists to work on innovative scientific studies.5 The Research Institute of Virology in Uzbekistan received $800,000 for the study of arbovirus infections in the South Aral region.6

Together with the United States, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other former Soviet republics are developing a network of surveillance and diagnostic labs. The labs are linked with an Electronic Integrated Disease Surveillance System through epidemiological monitoring stations. Kazakhstan already operates two biological monitoring stations; Uzbekistan, six; Georgia, four; and Azerbaijan, one. Once gathered, integrated human and veterinary surveillance data is sent off in near-real time to national and U.S. counterparts.

A comprehensive epizootological study of Vozrozhdeniye Island funded by the United States and operated by the Uzbek Center for Prevention and Quarantine, is an important addition to indigenous disease surveillance campaigns on the island: Kazakh and Uzbek scientists presently monitor the island for plague and other diseases, beyond anthrax, that might have been introduced to the island during Soviet times and could spread to the mainland through rodents. The dramatic shrinking of the Aral Sea in recent years further exacerbates the proliferation risks if pathogens remain on Vozrozhdeniye Island. Birds and rodents are potential carriers of diseases to the mainland, as are people who come to the island in search of scrap metal.

Since the very early days of their cooperation, the Central Asian states have demonstrated high degree of openness and transparency. If political will prevails and all sides overcome bureaucratic and implementation hurdles that occur along the way, the cooperative threat reduction process will continue to not only strengthen public health and biodefense capacities but also serve the larger purpose of building trust between Washington and Central Asian governments.

1Overall CTR Program funding for nuclear, biological, and chemical projects in the former Soviet Union totals $5.9 billion since 1991.
2The Biological Threat Reduction Program of the Department of Defense: From Foreign Assistance to Sustainable Partnerships (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2007), pp. 27-28.
3Communication with Dr. Kenes Ospanov, Head Physician, Republic Sanitary Epidemiological Station, Kazakhstan, July 18, 2008.
4The Biological Threat Reduction Program of the Department of Defense, p. 102.
5Communication with Kaissar Tabynov, researcher at Kazakhstan Research Institute for Biological Safety, July 13, 2008.
6The Biological Threat Reduction Program of the Department of Defense, p. 103.

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Topics: Biosecurity, Opinion

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