Research program opens doors of Russian biomedical facilities to U.S. veterinarians

Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

biomedical researchVeterinarians were part of a recent National Research Council initiative trying to establish collaborative research projects with scientists working at Russian facilities housing some of the deadliest viruses and bacteria known.

In September and October, two teams of U.S. scientists traveled to two of Russia's largest biomedical research facilities where the smallpox virus, anthrax bacteria, plague bacteria, and Ebola virus were studied as part of the Soviet Union's biological weapons program. Drs. Charlie Stoltenow, Bruce Scharf, and Rebecca Morton were on those teams, veterinarians selected from a pool of national applicants for an experimental scheme.

According to Glenn Schweitzer with the Central European, Eurasian Affairs division of the Office of International Affairs at the NRC, the idea behind the exchange program is twofold: identifying new collaborative research opportunities for America and Russia, while also redirecting Russian scientists involved in Soviet-era bioweapons programs to peaceful civilian research.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 came growing concern over its arsenal of nuclear and biological weapons. For several years the U.S. government has spearheaded programs to prevent proliferation of these dangerous agents. A corollary has been to discourage low-paid Russian scientists from working on nuclear and bioweapons projects in other nations.

Past outreaches have involved only U.S. government scientists. Although funded by the Department of Defense through the National Academy of Sciences, the NRC Exchange Program With Russian Institutions in the Biomedical Sciences uses civilians, rather than government scientists.

The six participants were chosen from a pool of candidates who responded to a national advertisement from the Office of International Affairs at the NRC. The ad sought scientists interested in the prophylaxis, diagnosis, therapy, and epidemiology, including related basic research investigation in Russia. Work was to be conducted at the State Research Center of Applied Microbiology at Obolensk, and the State Research Center for Virology and Applied Biotechnology Vector in Novosibirsk. Both facilities were active in Soviet bioweapons projects, but have since been open to the United States.

By opening the exchange program to scientists in academia and the private sector, the NRC is attempting to broaden the pool of U.S. collaborators. "Almost all the American participants are government people, and our effort was to try to reach out beyond the government community to other organizations where people might be interested," said Schweitzer, director of the exchange program.

Dr. Charles Stoltenow, extension veterinarian and assistant professor in the veterinary and microbiological sciences department at North Dakota State University, was on the team that visited the Obolensk facility near Moscow, Sept. 29–Oct. 14. Because North Dakota is endemic for anthrax, Dr. Stoltenow, a former epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wanted to know whether the animal anthrax vaccine used in the United States can be improved.

Security is tight at the Obolensk facility, where bacteria causing anthrax, plague, tularemia, and Escherichia coli and Salmonella spp, are studied. The building is large, surrounded by cement walls and electrified fences; armed guards patrol the perimeter. The government scientists there, mostly microbiologists, are paid an average of $500 a month. Washington, D.C. and the Pentagon worry these intelligent, highly specialized scientists could be enticed to work on better paying bioweapons programs in other countries.

The Obolensk facility, according to Dr. Stoltenow, once had more than 3,000 employees. Today there are approximately 1,000. "The question," he asked, "is where did they go?" Some may have dropped out to start businesses in Russia's fledgling market economy. Dr. Stoltenow knows of one scientist who is working for a construction company. But it is no secret that some have defected. One well-known example is Ken Alibek, former deputy director of Biopreparat, the civilian arm of the Soviets' bioweapons program, who came to the United States in 1992.

Dr. Stoltenow does not think the Russian scientists he met would help other countries or terrorist groups build biological weapons. They are devoted scientists, he said, and understand how dangerous the agents are. "They're not foolish with this stuff," he said, noting that many have sons and daughters attending colleges in the United States. "However, we shouldn't want to put them in the position of having to choose whether to do this or eat. That's how bad it got over there," referring to harsh economic conditions endured through the 1990s.

What Dr. Stoltenow witnessed was a society struggling with the transition to the relatively new market economy after years of centralized planning by the Soviet bureaucracy. "They're not used to having to go out and hustle for work," he observed. "They're not used to having to come up with a business plan, or even a research plan."

For instance, Dr. Stoltenow learned that the Russians vaccinate all their food animals for anthrax, whether they need it or not, whereas in the United States, animals are vaccinated only during outbreaks or in regions where the bacteria are endemic. The U.S. model, he said, makes the best use of limited resources, but the old Soviet model, which persists today, has taken away the decision-making abilities of the Russian scientists.

Dr. Stoltenow and his colleagues tried to direct the Russian scientists into new research areas. The Russians have worked with human tuberculosis, so the U.S. team asked what work had they done in the area of paratuberculosis in cattle. It turned out that they did not know about Johne's disease, and had never tested cows for it. "As we talked about it, there are whole areas of medicine that they have not even explored, which, potentially, they have a lot of expertise to work in," he said.

Dr. Bruce Scharf shares those sentiments after he spent two weeks with virologists at the State Research Center for Virology and Applied Biotechnology Vector in Novosibirsk. He and two other U.S. scientists were there Oct. 12–27.

biomedical research

Commonly referred to as "Vector," the Novosibirsk facility is located in southern Siberia near Mongolia. The facility is well guarded, and Dr. Scharf and his team were escorted at all times. That's because research is being conducted there on smallpox, the Hanta and Ebola, distemper, and eastern equine encephalitis viruses, to name just a few.

An assistant professor and associate director of the laboratory animal resources division at the State University of New York College of Medicine, Dr. Scharf applied for the exchange program as an opportunity to improve relations with America's former adversary. In addition to identifying possible areas of collaboration, he lectured on the principles of animal experimentation.

"There are a lot of areas where science needs to progress in Russia," he observed. "The Russians know it, we know it, and they're happy to work with us. And as far as I'm concerned, it's a gold mine of research opportunities."

The team came up with a number of potential projects to pursue. One takes an epidemiologic approach with rabies in Siberia. Rabies strains would be genetically analyzed and compared to known strains in North America. A second project would examine the Morbillivirus in seals. Specifically, the researchers want to know how the virus is passed between animal species.

"If we can determine that, we might be able to prevent animal viruses in the future from crossing into humans," Dr. Scharf said.

In his opinion, years of central planning have not stifled scientific innovation in Russia. Rather, a depressed economy has had a crippling effect on research. "They've had such a hard time making ends meet economically for the past 10 years that they haven't had time to really concentrate on their work," Dr. Scharf said.

Given the tight security, there is little chance biological agents could be stolen from Vector, according to Dr. Scharf. But like Dr. Stoltenow, he recognizes that the real danger is that a virologist could be persuaded to work on biological weapons elsewhere. "If one of these scientists or a group of these scientists were to be paid a lot of money to perform evil research for a terrorist state, it would be a threatening situation," he said.

He's quick to note that the scientists he met at Vector were patriotic and comfortable with their lifestyle in Russia. They were horrified by the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and empathized with the people of New York City. The scientists are "not the kind of people who are going to go to a rogue nation," he said. "If anything, I can see them coming here or working in Europe if the economic conditions were right."

According to Schweitzer with the Office of International Affairs, it is too soon to tell whether the exchange program will be continued. The proposed projects must be approved by the Russian and American governments, then survive a lengthy review process. Regardless of the outcome, scientists in both countries have benefited from the brief exchange. Said Dr. Scharf, "I think the more every American does to help our relations with other countries, especially countries that were former adversaries, [the more it] helps all Americans.