Yet the animals were unaffected. “We had huge pressure to produce these more lethal weapons,” Popov said. “I was in charge of new projects. Often, it was my responsibility to develop the project, and if I couldn’t, that would be my problem. I couldn’t say, “No, I won’t do it.’ Because, then, what about your children? What about your family?” To appease their military bosses, Popov and his researchers shifted to peptides other than beta-endorphins and discovered that, indeed, microbes bearing genes that expressed myelin protein could provoke animals’ immune systems to attack their own nervous systems. While the Vector team used this technique to increase the virulence of vaccinia, with the ultimate goal of applying it to smallpox, Popov was sent to Obolensk to develop the same approach with bacteria. Still, he told me, “We now know that if we’d continued the original approach with beta-endorphins, we would have seen their effect.”
This vision of subtle bioweapons that modified behavior by targeting the nervous system – inducing effects like temporary schizophrenia, memory loss, heightened aggression, immobilizing depression, or fear – was irresistibly attractive to Biopreparat’s senior military scientists. After Popov’s defection, the research continued. In 1993 and 1994, two papers, copublished in Russian science journals by Ashmarin and some of Popov’s former colleagues, described experiments in which vaccines of recombinant tularemia successfully produced beta-endorphins in test animals and thereby increased their thresholds of pain sensitivity. These apparently small claims amount to a proof of concept: bioweapons can be created that target the central nervous system, changing perception and behavior.
I asked Popov whether bioweaponeers could design pathogens that induced the type of effects usually associated with psychopharmaceuticals.
“Essentially, a pathogen is only a vehicle,” Popov replied. “Those vehicles are available – a huge number of pathogens you could use for different jobs. If the drug is a peptide like endorphin, that’s simple. If you’re talking about triggering the release of serotonin and dopamine – absolutely possible. To cause amnesia, schizophrenia – yes, it’s theoretically possible with pathogens. If you talk about pacification of a subject population – yes, it’s possible. The beta-endorphin was proposed as potentially a pacification agent. For more complex chemicals, you’d need the whole biological pathways that produce them. Constructing those would be enormously difficult. But any drug stimulates specific receptors, and that is doable in different ways. So instead of producing the drug, you induce the consequences. Pathogens could do that, in principle.”
Psychotropic recombinant pathogens may sound science fictional, but sober biologists support Popov’s analysis. Harvard University professor of molecular biology Matthew Meselson is, with Frank Stahl, responsible for the historic Meselson-Stahl experiment of 1957, which proved that DNA replicated semiconservatively, as Watson and Crick had proposed. Meselson has devoted much effort to preventing biological and chemical weapons. In 2001, warning that biotechnology’s advance was transforming the possibilities of bioweaponeering, he wrote in the New York Review of Books, “As our ability to modify life processes continues its rapid advance, we will not only be able to devise additional ways to destroy life but will also become able to manipulate it – including the fundamental biological processes of cognition, development, reproduction, and inheritance.”
I asked Meselson if he still stood by this. “Yes,” he said. After telling him of Popov’s accounts of Russian efforts to engineer neuromodulating pathogens, I said I was dubious that biological weapons could achieve such specific effects. “Why?” Meselson bluntly asked. He didn’t believe such agents had been created yet – but they were possible.