Russian and American use of Yersinia pestis as a Biological Weapon
“In the city of Kirov, we maintained a quota of twenty tons of plague in our arsenals every year.” Kanatjan Alibekov, 1992.
“It is apparent that there has been a kind of ignoring of potentials for harm,” Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee, March 6, 1996.
By the mid 1990’s, it became obvious to the United States government that the threat of biological warfare was more than just hypothetical. Even though the United States and Russia, among other countries, signed a ban on the development of biological weapons during the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972, doubts lingered around the intentions embedded in the signatures. For the United States, these doubts were solidified when, in 1992, Ken Alibek defected to America. Formerly known as Kanatjan Alibekov in his mother country, Russia, Alibek enabled US intelligence to locate and identify major sites located within Russia which were dedicated to mass production of biological agents designed specifically for offensive purposes (Alibek 1999). Among the list of more than 50 microorganisms and toxins designed and manipulated for warfare are smallpox, anthrax, cholera and plague. Biological warfare agents exist. Among them is one of the most transmissible and deadliest microorganisms: Yersinia pestis .
The earliest recorded use of Y. pestis as a biological weapon occurred in the 14thcentury when a Tartar army, in an attempt to conquer conquered Kaffa (in current day Crimea), reportedly catapulted victims of plague over gated walls (Cartwright 1972). Centuries later, the world would witness attempts of Japan’s Unit 731 to harbor plague as a biological weapon as well. In 1940, Japanese General Ishii Shiro led the campaign to drop porcelain bombs filled with plague infected fleas over central China’s Hunan province. The Chinese government reports 7,643 people died as a result (Harbin and Kattoulas 2002). Other modes of possible transmission of plague included flea-ridden feathers as well as briefcases and pens which would aerosolize Y. pestis . When brought to trial for war crimes, senior officials of Unit 731 were released by the US in exchange for information. The US capitalized on this information and gave birth to the US Biological Weapons Program at Ft. Detrick, MD.
However, as opposition of US involvement in Vietnam grew, increasing pressure was put on the US president to ban the development and use of biological/chemical weapons. As a sign of good faith, President Nixon along with Russia’s leader and other world leaders attended the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 1972 and agreed to end biological warfare as a military offensive tactic. Unfortunately, there was no compliance assurance or enforcement associated with this treaty. While the US simply renamed its research program to reflect defensive purposes rather than offensive purposes, Russia founded Biopreparat. With an annual budget of up to $1 billion, Russian scientists soon realized the promise of genetic engineering (Alibek 1999).
During the mid to late 1980’s, Russian scientists at Biopreparat made a major breakthrough. They had begun to upgrade their arsenal of biological weapons via genetic modification. One of the first steps of such modifications included making a primitive sort of chimera. A chimera is a biological organism which has been altered so that the ‘new version’ also has characteristics of another biological organism. Russian scientists were experimenting with the idea of taking Y. pestis and inserting various other known toxins into the cells. One day, the announcement was made at Biopreparat that such a design had been successfully made. They inserted a plasmid containing the gene for myelin toxin into Y. pestis . The design was simple and disturbing. If a patient were diagnosed with pneumonic plague in time to be treated, the antibiotics would attack and lyse the plague cells, thereby releasing the plasmid coding for myelin toxin which would cause paralysis, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and changes in behavior. Heralded as a major triumph for Mother Russia, Alibek explained, “A toxin-plague weapon was never produced before the Soviet Union collapsed, but the success of this experiment set the stage for further research on bacteria-toxin combinations.” (Alibek 1999).
The next step was initiated by Deputy Director Sergei Netesov who suggested putting Venezuelan Equine Ecephalitis (VEE) into Y. pestis . The was based on the same idea of treating plague with antibiotics, thereby releasing something else. This time, however, the result would have more dramatic consequences. By the time VEE would have lysed from the bacterium, it would have bypassed most of the body’s defenses, allowing it to travel directly to the brain. The patient, being treated for plague, would be dead from encephalitis within 7 to 10 days. US intelligence combined with information gleaned from Russian defectors made the picture very clear for the US: Russia was creating superbugs for the purpose of biological warfare and among them were superversions of Y. pestis .
After decades of researching and modifying Y. pestis for biological warfare, why have we not seen more of its use in war? One contributing factor is lack of control. The four corners of the earth are not as far away as they used to be. We live in an age of international connectedness. Infected raspberries from Guatemala resulted in a 1996 outbreak of Streptococcus in the US. Numerous reports have been cited of infected migrant workers from Mexico transferring intestinal parasites to cows and sheep while working on American ranches. Attempts to keep mad cow disease outside of the US have failed. The high mobility of people and products of today’s world ensures what goes around comes around.
Even during times when ships were the main mode of international travel, the world witnessed the rapid dissemination of Y. pestis , which ultimately led up to at least three world pandemics. Towns closed themselves off entirely as word of the plague approached town limits. Yet, even with the strictest of precautions and attempts of isolation, plague inevitably found its way into the heart of even the remotest of towns. “But we did not want to use contagious agents anyway, because of the risk that they’d go where you didn’t want them to,” said William Patrick II, a former bioweapons scientist at Ft. Detrick.
As a result of the imposing threat of biological attack, training and surveillance programs were designed and implemented for the front line should an attack occur: the hospitals. In May 2000, these programs were hypothetically tested in Denver where a simulated pneumonic plague attack was to occur (Miller et al. 2001). The attack simulation was supposed to last 10 days. It lasted four. By the fourth day, it became clear to everyone involved that there was no way for them to ‘catch up’ with the pestilence which had already spread throughout the US and as far away as Japan and England despite intensive efforts by officials to contain the disease. Advising scientists knew a key factor to controlling plague was to contain it. Wendy Orent writes in her book, Plague , “In the time of a new plague, people would need to remember, despite their terror, that no epidemic disease is more susceptible to quarantine .”(Orent 2004) However, attempts to isolate the “infected” failed. Analysts reported the failure to quarantine the sick to be contributed to a bad link between health officials, hospital staff and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI and health officials simply weren’t communicating with each other. Hospital staff would explain the need to block flow into and out of city limits while government officials would deny the plausibility of doing so. At one point, government officials even opted to commandeer Coors trucks to pick up dead bodies and keep them refrigerated. “Our public healthcare infrastructure was in some ways better prepared in the thirties to handle an epidemic like this than they are today,” said Tara O’Toole, a public health expert who evaluated the exercise. This exercise demonstrated the reason why the US chose not to use plague as a biological weapon: Y. pestis was too transmissible.
For Russia and Japan, on the other hand, it was the inability to control Y. pestis combined with the ability of Y. pestis to rapidly spread that was appealing. While new weapons were being designed by the US military to incapacitate the enemy, Russia was designing new weapons to decimate the enemy. By incapacitating, or wounding, soldiers of the other army rather than killing its soldiers straight away, you ensure a greater depletion of resources. It takes more money and personnel to care for a wounded soldier than to bury a dead one. Whether Russia believed they had appropriate treatment and prevention for its citizens or whether they just didn’t care, high levels of infectivity and transmissibility made plague the perfect weapon.
Instead, the main deterrent from using biological weapons is the same as it is for using nuclear weapons: retaliation in kind. Although the United States signed the ban on biological and toxic warfare in 1972, Ft. Detrick has been home to research on biological warfare since the 1940’s. Before 1942, the research was centered on the design and modification of microorganisms and toxins for the purpose of offensive warfare tactics. After 1972, this research was reorganized to include defensive warfare tactics. A line exists between offensive- and defensive-based research in biological warfare, but the line is thin. Other countries also have biological weapons. The gap of information lies not in the probability of another country including biological weapons in their arsenal, but rather in what biological weapons they possess and in what quantities?
A probable scenario of an attack with Y. pestis would include Y. pestis infection in the form of primary pneumonic plague. Expect the bacterium to be modified into a more virulent form than is found in nature via genetic modification or via infection of bacteria with a virus which would be lysed upon treatment of plague with antibiotics. There is also high probability that Y. pestis will be released along with a number of other modified organisms. Because of the high transmissibility of Y. pestis , expect the attack to be initiated by either a terrorist group or by a larger government institution which has no other option. For instance, should a major war break out between the United States and another country, the purposeful release of Y. pestis by the other country upon the US will occur when they have no hope left of victory.
Expect the attack to occur in a number of crowded places in colder climates such as New York City or Denver at a bus station, airport and/or stadium. In an Intelligence Briefing from March 12-18, 2005, a document known as the National Planning Scenarios outlined a probable attack of pneumonic plague being disseminated in the bathrooms at an airport, sports arena, and train station (Lipton 2005). This simulated attack had the capacity to kill 2500 and sicken 8000 worldwide. Also, expect a simultaneous attack to occur in the hospitals of the corresponding cities. This will deplete human and fiscal resources, create panic and instill a low level of morale amongst the population. Recently, there have been reports of suspicious persons posing as Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) surveyors. These persons have entered hospitals with the apparent intent of surveying capabilities of the hospitals. During one incident, a JCAHO imposter asked a duty nurse questions regarding the hospital’s bed capacity and how care was administered to patients. The New Jersey Office of Counter-Terrorism Bulletin in March 2005 states, “Furthermore, counter-terrorism analysts remain concerned that terrorist organizations may attempt to target US medical infrastructure in order to cause immediate casualties and disrupt health care and emergency medical services.” (Terrorism Bulletin 183, 2005).
Most of our knowledge of research in which Yersinia pestis is utilized as a biological warfare agent is outdated. Defectors from Russia debriefed the US in the mid 1990’s. Public knowledge of plague research supported by the US is largely based on activities prior to 1972. The potential of a “super” plague attack is high. Should an attack occur, the US government has ample room for improvement in its ability to respond. In the meantime, it is essential that the people of the US become informed about the possibility of an attack, how to recognize signs that such an attack has occurred, and about what to do if one should occur.
- Alibek, K. 1999. Biohazard. Dell Publishing, New York, NY.
- Cartwright, F. 1972. Disease and History. Barnes and Noble, New York, NY.
- Harbin, M. and Kattoulas, V. 2002. Black Death. Time Asia Magazine, September 2, 2002.
- Lipton, E. 2005. Training and Doctrine Command; Command Provost Marshal; Force Protection/Antiterrorism Review. Intelligence Briefing, March 12-18, 2005.
- Miller, J., Engelberg, S., and Broad, W. 2001. Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.
- Orent, W. 2004. Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease. Free Press, New York, NY.
- Terrorism Bulletin 183. 2005. Office of the NJ Attorney General Office of Counter-Terrorism. March 08, 2005.