In short, Popov indicated that a plague-Ebola combination was theoretically possible and that Soviet scientists had studied that possibility. Next, he made another turn of the screw: Biopreparat had researched recombinants that would effectively turn their victims into walking Ebola bombs. I had asked Popov for a picture of some worst-case scenarios, so I cannot complain that he was misleading me – but the Russians almost certainly never created the plague-Ebola combination.
One further testimonial to Popov: the man himself is all of a piece. Recalling his youth in Siberia, he told me, “I believed in the future, the whole idea of socialism, equity, and social justice. I was deeply afraid of the United States, the aggressive American military, capitalism – all that was deeply scary.” He added, “It’s difficult to communicate how people in the Soviet Union thought then about themselves and how much excitement we young people had about science.” Biological-weapons development was a profession into which Popov was recruited in his 20s and which informed his life and thinking for years. To ask him questions about biological weapons is to elicit a cascade of analysis of the specific cell-signaling pathways and receptors that could be targeted to induce particular effects, and how that targeting might be achieved via the genetic manipulation of pathogens. Popov is not explicable unless he is what he claims to be.
Popov’s research in Russia is powerfully suggestive of the strangeness of recombinant biological weapons. Because genetics and molecular biology were banned as “bourgeois science” in the U.S.S.R. until the early 1960s, Popov was among the first generation of Soviet university graduates to grow up with the new biology. When he first joined Vector, or the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, Biopreparat’s premier viral research facility near Novosibirsk, he didn’t immediately understand that he had entered the bioweaponeering business. “Nobody talked about biological weapons,” he told me. “Simply, it was supposed to be peaceful research, which would transition from pure science to a new microbiological industry.” Matters proceeded, however. “Your boss says, “We’d like you to join a very interesting project.’ If you say no, that’s the end of your career. Since I was ambitious then, I went further and further. Initially, I had a dozen people working under me. But the next year I got the whole department of fifty people.”
In 1979, Popov received orders to start research in which small, synthesized genes coding for production of beta-endorphins – the opioid neurotransmitters produced in response to pain, exercise, and other stress – were to be spliced into viruses. Ostensibly, this work aimed to enhance the pathogens’ virulence. Popov shrugged, recalling this. “How could we increase virulence with endorphins? Still, if some general tells you, you do it.” Popov noted that the particular general who ordered the project, Igor Ashmarin, was also a molecular biologist and, later, an academician on Moscow State University’s biology faculty. “Ashmarin’s project sounded unrealistic but not impossible. The peptides he suggested were short, and we knew how to synthesize the DNA.”
Peptides, such as beta-endorphins, are the constituent parts of proteins and are no longer than 50 amino acids. Nature exploits their compactness in contexts where cell signaling takes place often and rapidly – for instance, in the central nervous system, where peptides serve as neurotransmitters. With 10 to 20 times fewer amino acids than an average protein, peptides are produced by correspondingly smaller DNA sequences, which made them good candidates for synthesis using Biopreparat’s limited means. Popov set a research team to splicing synthetic endorphin-expressing genes into various viruses, then infecting test animals.