Cold war leaves a deadly anthrax legacy

By Judith Miller

June 2, 1999

VOZROZHDENIYA ISLAND, Uzbekistan -- In the spring of 1988, germ scientists 850 miles east of Moscow were ordered to undertake their most critical mission.

Working in great haste and total secrecy, the scientists in the city of Sverdlovsk transferred hundreds of tons of anthrax bacteria -- enough to destroy the world many times over -- into giant stainless-steel canisters. They poured bleach into them to decontaminate the deadly pink powder, packed the canisters onto a train two dozen cars long and sent the illicit cargo almost a thousand miles across Russia and Kazakstan to this remote island in the heart of the inland Aral Sea, U.S. and Central Asian officials say.

Here Russian soldiers dug huge pits and poured the sludge into the ground, burying the germs and, Moscow hoped, a grave political threat.

While Mikhail Gorbachev was pressing his glasnost and perestroika campaign and warming ties with the West, intelligence evidence was mounting in Washington that the Soviet Union, contrary to its treaty pledges, was producing tons of deadly germs for weapons the world had banned. The stockpile had to be destroyed in case the United States and Britain demanded an inspection, Russian scientists close to the program said.

Vozrozhdeniya Island was a natural choice. Until the military left here for good in 1992, Renaissance Island, as it translates from the Russian, had been the Soviet Union's major open-air testing site. Today, Renaissance Island, which the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakstan share, is the world's largest anthrax burial ground.

For the United States, it is an intelligence gold mine. At the invitation of Uzbekistan and Kazakstan, U.S. military scientists and intelligence experts have secretly been traveling here for the past four years -- most recently in October -- to survey the island and take samples of the buried bacteria, according to senior Uzbek and U.S. officials.

What they have found is stunning, the experts say.

A buried threat

Tests of soil samples from six of 11 vast burial pits show that, although the anthrax was soaked in bleach at least twice, once inside the 66-gallon containers and again after it was dumped into the sandy pits and buried for a decade under 3 to 5 feet of sand, some of the spores are still alive -- and potentially deadly.

Tests on the samples performed by U.S. military laboratories have shown that the anthrax vaccine now being given, in six shots and a yearly booster, to 2.4 million Americans in uniform is effective against the Russian strain of this ancient, deadly scourge -- at least the strain found on the island.

While this has reassured the Clinton administration, the discovery of live spores has alarmed Kazakstan and especially worries Uzbekistan, which has been exploring for oil on the two-thirds of the island it controls.

Because the Aral Sea is shrinking -- the result of wrongheaded Soviet irrigation policies -- this now-deserted, isolated island has grown from 77 square miles to 770 and will soon be connected to the mainland.

Uzbek and Kazakh experts fear the buried anthrax spores could escape their sandy tomb, stirred up by carriers like gophers and other rodents, lizards and birds, and be brought to Uzbek and Kazak territory. The disease is spread from animals to people by direct contact; it is treatable with antibiotics if detected immediately. As a weapon, it would be released as an aerosol, for inhalation.

Central Asian and U.S. officials fear that, as access to the island eases, the buried anthrax could be used by terrorists to make more of the deadly agent.

In addition, officials said, exposure to the spores could add a new threat to a population whose health is already considered abysmal. International medical experts are just starting to assess which of their many chronic ailments are attributable to poverty and environmental degradation and which might be linked to the region's biological and chemical legacy.

A 'durable' strain

As a result, Uzbekistan and Kazakstan, which have both renounced weapons of mass destruction, have independently asked the United States for help in assessing or cleaning up this terrible biological legacy of Soviet rule. In addition, Uzbekistan permitted this correspondent to visit Renaissance Island earlier this year -- the first visit by a journalist -- and to interview officials and scientists concerned about the biological hazards here.

The trip, coupled with interviews with about two dozen scientists, government officials and military experts in Central Asia, Russia and the United States, has shed light on one of the most closely guarded biological secrets of the Cold War.

Although Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued an edict in 1992 closing the site and vowing that the laboratory would be dismantled and decontaminated within three years, the cash-strapped Moscow government never followed through. And Russia has never acknowledged responsibility for the anthrax cemetery here.

Military scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command and other laboratories where the samples are being studied refused comment on the island and the tests. But other officials said the labs were still deciphering the Russian anthrax's molecular structure and trying to determine why spores collected from some of the pits did not die.

"We have always known that anthrax is hard to kill," said one military expert, who would only discuss this highly classified activity if he were not identified. "But this strain has proven especially durable, and this wasn't even the most powerful strains the Soviets made."

Signs of life diminish as the Soviet-era MI-8 helicopter speeds toward this island, a 90-minute flight from Nukus, the nearest Uzbek military base. As the chopper approaches the island, fishermen in their wooden boats disappear as what was once a living sea becomes marshland. Scraggly trees give way to patches of sagebrush until, finally, there is nothing left to see below save salt-covered, cement-colored sand that the sea once covered, now as dry and cracked as an ancient face. Nothing seems to live here, not even birds.

Assessing contamination

Given its remote location and inhospitable climate (a study says its sandy soil's temperature can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit in summer), the island was long a favored Russian spot for secretive arrangements.

U.S. officials said that although satellites recorded some unusual activity on the island in 1988, the United States did not learn that the Soviets had buried anthrax from Sverdlovsk here until 1992, when Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, or Ken Alibek, as he is now known, a high-ranking germ weapons official, defected. Alibek had been the director of the giant Soviet anthrax production plant at Stepnogorsk, which is now in Kazakstan.

Between 1988 and his defection, he was the deputy director of Biopreparat, the secret network of some 40 supposedly peaceful facilities, including Stepnogorsk, that provided civilian cover for bio-weapons work.

In interviews in Tashkent, Uzbek officials said that only after their country became independent in 1992 did they understand the implications of their biological legacy. "We were shocked when we first learned the real picture," said Isan M. Mustafoev, Uzbekistan's deputy foreign minister.

Though Uzbekistan is deeply concerned about the potential danger, decontaminating the island, given its size and the amount of anthrax buried here, would be prohibitively expensive, Mustafoev and U.S. officials agreed. But Kazakstan has asked Washington's help in surveying the Renaissance area to assess contamination levels. All three capitals have been pressing Moscow to provide more information about what happened here.

On May 25, the United States and Uzbekistan signed a bilateral agreement that provides up to $6 million in U.S. aid to dismantle and decontaminate a former Soviet chemical weapons testing facility near the Aral Sea.

'Totally in the dark'

Most germ weapons scientists familiar with Vozrozhdeniya said there was little immediate danger to the local population. But with the continued shrinking of the sea, the island is becoming more readily accessible. In some of the pits, anthrax sludge is beginning to leach up through the sand, said one recent visitor here.

Although Uzbek officials have kept Renaissance Island closed, local inhabitants will inevitably come in contact with the still deadly bacteria once it is linked to the mainland.

And in fact, local residents have apparently removed materials and equipment from former laboratories on the island, apparently oblivious to or unconcerned about any danger.

"We're now totally in the dark," said Ian Small, the country manager of Doctors without Borders, a volunteer physicians group trying to improve the health of people in the area. "It's scary not to know what we're dealing with."

Copyright 1999 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.