1928-1945: BW DEVELOPMENT IN THE USSR
- The Soviet BW program during World War II remains somewhat mysterious, and considering the fact that many records were destroyed later, will probably always remain so.
Ken Alibek (originally Kanatjan Alibekov), a senior official of the Soviet “Biopreparat” BW organization in the late 1980s and early 1990s, emigrated to the United States in 1992 and provided a history of the Soviet BW program. While Soviet expatriates have been known to tell exaggerated stories for self-serving reasons, Alibek’s comments sound entirely plausible.
According to Alibek, the Soviet BW effort began in 1928, three years after the USSR signed the Geneva Procotols. The initial focus was to “weaponize” typhus, with the work supervised by the state security apparatus, the “GPU”, which would eventually evolve into the KGB. The effort then expanded, with new facilities built in the network of GPU prison camps. The prime testing ground was at Solovetsky Island, in the Arctic, north of Leningrad in the White Sea.
Prisoners may have been used in tests of bioagents. Certainly there were many casualties among researchers and workers as well, whose lives were made even more miserable during the purges of the 1930s by the influence of Trofim Lysenko, a quack biologist who managed to get Stalin’s ear. Those biologists who differed with Lysenko were sent to prison camps or worse, and Lysenko did much to hobble the Soviet BW effort.
When the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler’s forces in the summer of 1941, BW facilities in the west were relocated by train to the east, in the Ural mountains. A train carrying pathogens and other materials was passing though the city of Gorky when the Germans decided to bomb the place, panicking supervisors on the train, who ordered the train to keep on rolling through the city. The town of Kirov became the main BW facility after the move. The Soviets also found a new testing ground, at Rebirth Island in the Aral Sea.
During the summer of 1942, when the Germans were pushing through the USSR towards the Caucasus and Stalingrad, there was an outbreak of tularemia of unprecedented magnitude among both German and Soviet troops. Alibek felt certain the outbreak had been a BW attack that had gone wrong, and “old-timers” in the Biopreparat organization told him stories that reinforced his suspicions.
There was also an outbreak of “Q fever” among German troops on leave in the Crimea in 1943. Alibek never investigated the matter in detail, but believed it might very well have been a BW attack or test. Q fever was originally “Query fever” because nobody could figure out what caused it. The pathogen was eventually identified as Coxiella burnetii, a species of “rickettsiae”, a type of very small and primitive bacteria that, like viruses, can only reproduce in living cells. The typhus pathogen is another member of the rickettsiae.
Q fever is a disease of sheep, goats, and cows carried by ticks. Animals can be infected by breathing dried tick feces, and humans in proximity to the animals can be infected as well. It forms hardy spores, with an effective dose as small as one spore, and so makes a fairly good bioagent. Q fever causes a sudden fever, aches, and general ill health, but it is much less dangerous than its relative typhus. Q fever only lasts a few weeks, rarely leads to complications except for pneumonia, and is rarely fatal.
Outbreaks of Q fever were unheard of in the Soviet Union before that time, and it was heavily investigated as a bioagent by Soviet researchers later. However, wars do tend to be accompanied by a breakdown in public health systems and outbreaks of diseases, sometimes unusual ones, so the evidence remains inconclusive