Deadly Germs At Home In Russia

Largest Supply Of Deadly Germs Found In Soviet Union

Even though the U.S. went to war with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction, the world's biggest biological warfare program was developed in the Soviet Union. Officially, that's all stopped.

But today, Russia continues to resist U.S. inspection of its military biological research labs. 60 Minutes had no trouble finding dangerous biological materials in facilities throughout Russia and Kazakhstan. Correspondent Christiane Amanpour reports.

A complex in Kazakhstan houses some of the world's deadliest killers. It's the local version of America's Centers for Disease Control.

In these primitive labs Dr. Bakhtiyar Suleimenov has preserved hundreds of samples of the most hazardous bacteria or pathogens known to man - all collected from natural outbreaks of the disease in this former Soviet republic.

How dangerous are the pathogens that are housed in the lab’s refrigerator?
“The diseases we work with are very dangerous, foremost among them the plague,” says Dr. Suleimenov.

And how much damage would it cause if these pathogens were released? How many people could it kill?

“This is a purified strain of plague,” says Suleimenov. “If it was stolen, it could start an epidemic.”

Suleimenov is referring to the same germ that causes bubonic plague. And it's not the only deadly bacteria stored here. The room also contains cholera and anthrax.

“This is the most dangerous room in Kazakhstan,” says Suleimenov.

It’s the most dangerous room with the most inadequate security. Wax seals and simple padlocks are hardly enough to keep deadly diseases out of the hands of terrorists, and Dr. Suleimenov knows it.

“We know it's not enough but that's all we can afford,” says Suleimenov. “Without American help, we wouldn't have even that.”

There is a wall made of concrete and barbed wire that is an example of the kind of security American money can buy. It may not look like much, but it has kept intruders out. Before that, there was nothing separating would-be terrorists from the dangerous biological agents inside.

The people responsible for funding this security system are former Sen. Sam Nunn and Sen. Richard Lugar, who established the U.S. program in 1991 that helps former Soviet republics get rid of their weapons of mass destruction and keep them out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states.

“We’re in a race, we're in a race with terrorists,” says Nunn. “They're trying to get chemical-biological-nuclear weapons, we're trying to prevent it. They're running; we're walking. We're not doing enough.”

What's even more frightening than Kazakhstan's germ storehouse is what's kept in a former bio-weapons lab in Obolensk, Russia. That's where deadly germs like those collected in Kazakhstan were genetically altered to become even better killers. Here, too, Nunn and Lugar stepped into a dangerous vacuum.

“We put security around the place where we found it,” says Lugar. “First of all, just barbed wire fencing and one guard, and deadly pathogens on the third floor that would have killed about everybody in the world. So this is dangerous stuff.”

The deadly pathogens are so dangerous that in 1972 President Richard Nixon negotiated an international treaty with the Soviet Union that obligated both countries to end their biological weapons program: "The United States of America will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate.”

But although the Soviets publicly agreed to stop, secretly they built the world's biggest biological weapons program, eventually employing 60,000 scientists.

The Soviet Union's main biological weapons test site in Kazakhstan was abandoned when the empire disintegrated. Clean-up crews later uncovered tons of buried anthrax and stacks of cages for monkeys that were used in deadly experiments. They also uncovered details of a mysterious outbreak of smallpox 30 years ago that hit a small town miles away from this test site.

Is there any way the outbreak of smallpox on the island could have been from natural causes?

Absolutely not, says Gen. Pyoter Burgasov, then the Soviet Union's deputy health minister. When he notified the head of the KGB that a bio-weapons test had gone awry, Burgasov was told to keep quiet, which he did, for more than 30 years.

“Only 20 grams of the smallpox was released and it drifted 15 kms in air before it infected a live target. Now that's a biological weapon,” says Burgasov.

What if the same amount was released in Times Square in New York or in the Metro in Moscow? What would the effect be?

“If 30 people inhaled it, they would infect 300, starting an epidemic of smallpox,” says Burgasov.

Smallpox is highly infectious and in an aerosol form, it would be the ultimate terrorist weapon. Although the Russians have shown the U.S. some of their major biological weapons facilities, there are still a lot of secrets that only people like Igor Domaradsky are willing to talk about.

For 20 years, Domaradsky was heavily involved in the program, and he's written a book about it called "BioWarrior."

“We had the most success with the plague. The microbe we developed was immune to antibiotics, and very deadly. In the '80s we switched to anthrax,” says Domaradsky.

Would anybody be tempted to sell that knowledge?

“Certainly nobody I know would consider doing that,” says Domaradsky. “But I can't rule out that possibility.”

One of the first things Russian President Boris Yeltsin did when communism collapsed was disband the biological weapons program and cut off its funds. But this victory for disarmament created a new set of problems. Thousands of scientists like Seva Kisilev, once part of a pampered elite, were suddenly were out of a job.

“It was dramatic. I think about 25 to 30 percent, they destroyed their life completely. We lost salary,” says Kisilev. “We lost everything.”

That's when the U.S. made an offer of cash grants to all the out-of-work bioweaponeers, to keep them in Russia working on commercial bio-tech projects - in return for opening their labs to inspection by the U.S. The idea was to prevent a brain drain and dangerous knowledge leaking out to rogue states.

What would the consequences be if they didn’t get the funds?

“Firing people, closing some projects," says Peter Syeshnikov. His Microbiology Institute qualified for these funds and developed a portable sensor to detect a biological attack for the U.S. Department of Defense.

But it's unlikely his prototype will ever go into production, because there is still not enough trust between America and Russia.

Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter from California claims that millions of dollars of Nunn-Lugar funds have been wasted, and he's angry that Americans have never been permitted to inspect Russia's four military biological research labs.

“You can't simply have a Russian bureaucrat meet you at the door, reach out and take your cash, and then close the door in your face and say you can't watch how they spend that money,” says Hunter.

But Nunn and Lugar say delaying funds to disarm Russia's weapons of mass destruction is like shooting yourself in the foot.

“It's ridiculous because the American people, given an opportunity, want these weapons to be destroyed. I want them to be destroyed,” says Lugar. “We really have to keep our eye on the ball as opposed to quibbling in the Congress.”

“Keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists should be the organizing security principle of the 21st Century,” says Nunn.

“Sen. Lugar's idealism has to be accompanied by responsible accountability,” counters Hunter. “Right now, behind closed doors, we don't know that the biological programs, especially at those four major sites, aren't continuing and we need the Russians to let us in and let us look around.”

Nunn and Lugar have been trying to get those sites opened for years but they say whatever cooperation they're getting in Russia is better than no cooperation.

60 Minutes asked Gen. Anatoly Vorobiyev, once Number Two in the secret Soviet program, if Russia still had anything to hide.

“I can give you my guarantee that there is no production of biological weapons at the military facilities. The real danger is that someone else will produce a biological weapon, and release it in a city subway,” says Gen. Vorobiyev, who doesn’t believe the world is prepared to deal with a bio-terrorist attack.