The possibility of terrorists’ gaining access to such high-end technology is worrisome. But few have publicly stated that engineering certain types of recombinant microörganisms using older equipment – nowadays cheaply available from eBay and online marketplaces for scientific equipment like LabX – is already feasible. The biomedical community’s reaction to all this has been a general flinching. (The signatories to the National Academies report are an exception.) Caution, denial, and a lack of knowledge about bioweaponeering seem to be in equal parts responsible. Jens Kuhn, a virologist at Harvard Medical School, told me, “The Russians did a lot in their bioweapons program. But most of that isn’t published, so we don’t know what they know.”
On a winter’s afternoon last year, in the hope of discovering just what the Russians had done, I set out along Highway 15 in Virginia to visit Serguei Popov at the Manassas campus of George Mason University. Popov came to the National Center for Biodefense after buying a book called Biohazard in 2000. This was the autobiography of Ken Alibek, Biopreparat’s former deputy chief, its leading scientist, and Popov’s ultimate superior. One of its passages described how, in 1989, Alibek and other Soviet bosses had attended a presentation by an unnamed “young scientist” from Biopreparat’s bacterial-research complex at Obolensk, south of Moscow. Following this presentation, Alibek wrote, “the room was absolutely silent. We all recognized the implications of what the scientist had achieved. A new class of weapons had been found. For the first time, we would be capable of producing weapons based on chemical substances produced naturally by the human body. They could damage the nervous system, alter moods, trigger psychological changes, and even kill.”
When Popov read that, I asked him, had he recognized the “young scientist?” “Yes,” he replied. “That was me.”
After reading Biohazard, Popov contacted Alibek and told him that he, too, had reached America. Popov moved to Virginia to work for Alibek’s company, Advanced Biosystems, and was debriefed by U.S. intelligence. In 2004 he took up his current position at the National Center for Biodefense, where Alibek is a distinguished professor.
Regarding the progress of biotechnology, Popov told me, “It seems to most people like something that happens in a few places, a few biological labs. Yet now it is becoming widespread knowledge.” Furthermore, he stressed, it is knowledge that is Janus-faced in its potential applications. “When I prepare my lectures on genetic engineering, whatever I open, I see the possibilities to make harm or to use the same things for good – to make a biological weapon or to create a treatment against disease.”
The “new class of weapons” that Alibek describes Popov’s creating in Biohazard is a case in point. Into a relatively innocuous bacterium responsible for a low-mortality pneumonia, Legionella pneumophila, Popov and his researchers spliced mammalian DNA that expressed fragments of myelin protein, the electrically insulating fatty layer that sheathes our neurons. In test animals, the pneumonia infection came and went, but the myelin fragments borne by the recombinant Legionella goaded the animals’ immune systems to read their own natural myelin as pathogenic and to attack it. Brain damage, paralysis, and nearly 100 percent mortality resulted: Popov had created a biological weapon that in effect triggered rapid multiple sclerosis. (Popov’s claims can be corroborated: in recent years, scientists researching treatments for MS have employed similar methods on test animals with similar results.)