When I asked about the prospects for creating bioweapons through synthetic biology, Popov mentioned the polio virus synthesized in 2002. “Very prominent people like [Anthony] Fauci at the NIH said, “Now we know it can be done.’” Popov paused. “You know, that’s…naïve. In 1981, I described how to carry out a project to synthesize small but biologically active viruses. Nobody at Biopreparat had even a little doubt it could be done. We had no DNA synthesizers then. I had 50 people doing DNA synthesis manually, step by step. One step was about three hours, where today, with the synthesizer, it could be a few minutes – it could be less than a minute. Nevertheless, already the idea was that we would produce one virus a month.”
Effectively, Popov said, Biopreparat had few restrictions on manpower. “If you wanted a hundred people involved, it was a hundred. If a thousand, a thousand.” It is a startling picture: an industrial program that consumed tons of chemicals and marshalled large numbers of biologists to construct, over months, a few hundred bases of a gene that coded for a single protein.
Though some dismiss Biopreparat’s pioneering efforts because the Russians relied on technology that is now antiquated, this is what makes them a good guide to what could be done today with cheap, widely available biotechnology. Splicing into pathogens synthesized mammalian genes coding for the short chains of amino acids called peptides (that is, genes just a few hundred bases long) was handily within reach of Biopreparat’s DNA synthesis capabilities. Efforts on this scale are easily reproducible with today’s tools.
What the Russians Did
The Soviet bioweapons program was vast and labyrinthine; not even Ken Alibek, its top scientific manager, knew everything. In assessing the extent of its accomplishment – and thus the danger posed by small groups armed with modern technology – we are to some degree dependent on Serguei Popov’s version of things. Since his claims are so controversial, a question must be answered: Many (perhaps most) people would prefer to believe that Popov is lying. Is he?
Popov’s affiliation with Alibek is a strike against him at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (Usamriid) at Fort Detrick, MD, where Biopreparat’s former top scientist has his critics. Alibek, one knowledgeable person told me, effectively “entered the storytelling business when he came to America.” Alibek’s critics charge that because he received consulting fees while briefing U.S. scientists and officials, he exaggerated Soviet bioweaponeering achievements. In particular, some critics reject Alibek’s claims that the U.S.S.R. had combined Ebola and other viruses – in order to create what Alibek calls “chimeras.” The necessary technology, they insist, didn’t yet exist. When I interviewed Alibek in 2003, however, he was adamant that Biopreparat had weaponized Ebola.
Alibek and Popov obviously have an interest in talking up Russia’s bioweapons. But neither I, nor others with whom I’ve compared notes, have ever caught Popov in a false statement. One must listen to him carefully, however. Regarding Ebola chimeras, he told me when I first interviewed him in 2003, “You can speculate about a plague-Ebola combination. I know that those who ran the Soviet bioweapons program studied that possibility. I can talk with certainty about a synthesis of plague and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, because I knew the guy who did that.” Popov then described a Soviet strategy for hiding deadly viral genes inside some milder bacterium’s genome, so that medical treatment of a victim’s initial symptoms from one microbe would trigger a second microbe’s growth. “The first symptom could be plague, and a victim’s fever would get treated with something as simple as tetracycline. That tetracycline would itself be the factor inducing expression of a second set of genes, which could be a whole virus or a combination of viral genes.”