Editor’s note: Conscious of the controversial nature of this article, Technology Review asked Allison Macfarlane, a research associate in the Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, to rebut its argument: see “Assessing the Threat.” We were also careful to elide any recipes for developing a biological weapon. Such details as do appear have been published before, mainly in scientific journals.
Last year, a likable and accomplished scientist named Serguei Popov, who for nearly two decades developed genetically engineered biological weapons for the Soviet Union, crossed the Potomac River to speak at a conference on bioterrorism in Washington, DC.
Popov, now a professor at the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases at George Mason University, is tallish, with peaked eyebrows and Slavic cheekbones, and, at 55, has hair somewhere between sandy and faded ginger. He has an open, lucid gaze, and he is courteously soft-spoken. His career has been unusual by any standards. As a student in his native city of Novosibirsk, Siberia’s capital, preparing his thesis on DNA synthesis, he read the latest English-language publications on the new molecular biology. After submitting his doctorate in 1976, he joined Biopreparat, the Soviet pharmaceutical agency that secretly developed biological weapons. There, he rose to become a department head in a comprehensive program to genetically engineer biological weapons. When the program was founded in the 1970s, its goal was to enhance classical agents of biological warfare for heightened pathogenicity and resistance to antibiotics; by the 1980s, it was creating new species of designer pathogens that would induce entirely novel symptoms in their victims.
In 1979, Popov spent six months in Cambridge, England, studying the technologies of automated DNA sequencing and synthesis that were emerging in the West. That English visit, Popov recently told me, needed some arranging: “I possessed state secrets, so I could not travel abroad without a special decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. A special legend, essentially, that I was an ordinary scientist, was developed for me.” The cover “legend” Popov’s superiors provided proved useful in 1992, after the U.S.S.R. fell. When the Russian state stopped paying salaries, among those affected were the 30,000 scientists of Biopreparat. Broke, with a family to feed, Popov contacted his British friends, who arranged funding from the Royal Society, so he could do research in the United Kingdom. The KGB (whose control was in any case limited by then) let him leave Russia. Popov never returned. In England, he studied HIV for six months. In 1993, he moved to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, whence he sent money so that his wife and children could join him. He remained in Texas until 2000, attracting little interest.
“When I came to Texas, I decided to forget everything,” Popov told me. “For seven years I did that. Now it’s different. It’s not because I like talking about it. But I see every day in publications that nobody knows what was done in the Soviet Union and how important that work was.”
Yet if Popov’s appearance last year at the Washington conference is any indication, it will be difficult to convince policymakers and scientists of the relevance of the Soviet bioweaponeers’ achievements. It wasn’t only that Popov’s audience in the high-ceilinged chamber of a Senate office building found the Soviets’ ingenious applications of biological science morally repugnant and technically abstruse. Rather, what Popov said lay so far outside current arguments about biodefense that he sounded as if he had come from another planet.