Man versus microbe

Ken Alibek developed biological weapons for the USSR. He's now on a crusade to warn the world about the risk of a smallpox attack. Steve Connor talks to him
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In 1991, Kanatjan Alibekov was a colonel in the Soviet army and first deputy chief of the civilian branch of the USSR's offensive biological weapons programme. For nearly 20 years, Alibekov oversaw the top-secret development of terrible weapons that were supposed to have been outlawed under the terms of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which his country had ratified. A year later, in 1992, Alibekov defected to America, spent a year being debriefed by the CIA and changed his name to Ken Alibek.

Today, Alibek is a distinguished professor of medical microbiology and immunology at George Mason University in Virginia, and a man whose self-proclaimed mission is to tell the world about the horrors of biological weapons, in particular those that would be unleashed if smallpox were ever to fall into the hands of suicidal terrorists. He attributes this Pauline conversion to something that happened on a visit to the US from December 1991 to January 1992, which had been arranged as part of a series of mutual, confidence-building inspections between the two military superpowers.

Up to that moment, Alibek had been convinced that America had been doing exactly what the Soviet Union had done - developing biological weapons in secret. "When I found out that there was not a problem, I realised that I'd spent 17 years of my life doing what I should not have done," he told me during a visit last week to Europe.

During that two-month period when Alibek was a guest of the US Government, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as President of the Soviet Union, which quickly disintegrated into 15 republics. Alibek, who was born in Kazakhstan, saw an opportunity. "When I came back from the US, I resigned my commission in the army and went back to Kazakhstan. I wanted citizenship and to work for my country," he says. The trouble was, his new masters at home were just as interested in biological weapons as his old masters in the Kremlin. "It was obvious after this that I wouldn't be able to stay in Russia or Kazakhstan. Everything changed. The KGB wanted to talk to me, I was under surveillance and somebody was following me," he says.

When Alibek finally managed to escape, his account of what the Soviet Union had been up to tallied with an earlier story of another Soviet scientist who had defected to the West in 1989. What emerged was truly astonishing. According to Donald Henderson - the US scientist who oversaw the eradication of smallpox in the 1970s and who later acted as a White House adviser on biological weapons - the USSR had established a massive BW operation involving perhaps 60,000 scientists in 50 laboratories.

Worst still, according to Alibek, the Soviet Union had built a production facility for smallpox and had amassed a stockpile of some 20 tons of an agent which, even in minute quantities, could decimate a population. With smallpox declared eradicated in the wild in 1980, many countries, including Britain and the US, have stopped vaccinating their citizens - making them highly vulnerable to a smallpox attack.

Alibek says that he is convinced that the new government in Russia has now destroyed its illicit smallpox stockpile, but he is not so sure that we can be guaranteed that the virus has not either slipped into the hands of terrorists or been retained by other countries. He is particularly concerned about North Korea which, according to KGB intelligence reports in 1987, had an active smallpox-development programme.

"We had very precise intelligence information thatdescribed in great detail North Korean offensive biological weapons and they [the Russians] were concerned that the Koreans were developing and working on smallpox," says Alibek.

Under the terms of the smallpox-eradication project organised by the World Health Organisation, every country was supposed either to destroy their stocks or to give them to one of two official repositories, one in the US and one in the USSR, which were both overseen by the WHO. Alibek doubts whether every country played by the rules, and believes that smallpox is being actively developed by terrorists.

"Biological terrorism is unfortunately our future," he says. "In the 21st century I have no doubt we will see new attempts to use biological agents to commit terrorist attacks. I would say the agent that would cause the most severe devastation is smallpox. We need to be prepared."

If smallpox can be prevented by vaccination, then why should we be worried? The difficulty for any government is that mass vaccination against something that might not even exist is a difficult risk-assessment. If the vaccine were 100 per cent safe, there would be no problem. But there is a small risk of very severe side-effects and even death from the smallpox vaccine. A government ordering mass vaccination would also be ordering the death of perhaps 16 in every million of its vaccinated citizens. This is why America and Britain have opted for a policy of vaccinating only those at highest risk, such as medical and military professionals and other "first responders" who would be expected to deal with a suspected smallpox attack.

Alibek makes no excuses for talking up the risk of such an attack. "The probability of a terrorist organisation having smallpox in its hands now is very low; the probability of a terrorist organisation trying to get hold of smallpox is very high; we shouldn't rule out the possibility of a leak from one place or another."

About 30 per cent of those infected with smallpox die, and the rest are left with disfiguring facial scars. The variola virus, which causes smallpox in humans, is one of the most efficient killers in history. Scientists estimate that in the 20th century smallpox killed at least 300 million people - about three times the number killed directly or indirectly through armed conflict.

"Smallpox is quite stable, it is relatively easy to manufacture, it could be deployed easily in liquid form and it is capable of causing epidemics and even pandemics. It'sa very efficient weapon." Even if terrorists with smallpox were only able to make a botched attack that failed to trigger a runaway epidemic, the wider impact would be devastating, says Alibek. "It's not just a matter of losing lives, it's a matter of severe psychological devastation and severe economic damage."