Atoning for Advancing Terror

By David Abel | Globe Staff  |10/17/2001

WASHINGTON - Over the past week, Ken Alibek has glimpsed the terrifying possibility that it may be too late to right his wrongs.

The chain-smoking micro biologist spent most of his life in remote, heavily guarded compounds secretly developing some of the most heinous weapons known, including his signature creation: the world's most deadly strain of anthrax.

Before the CIA helped him defect
to the United States in 1992, Alibek was known as Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, the first deputy chief of research and production for the Soviet Union's massive effort to achieve supremacy in bio weapons. And over the past decade, the 50-year-old from Kazakhstan has sought to redeem his years of building weapons of mass destruction.

Now, as the number of anthrax cases in the United States slowly mounts, Alibek is calling on Congress to establish a central biological warfare agency and to launch an effort like the Manhattan Project to quickly bolster the nation's ability to defend against bio weapons.

He has become a leading voice for a controversial approach to defending against biological attacks: focusing more on building immunity than producing vaccines.

"This is the way for me to contribute now," he said a few days ago after testifying at a congressional hearing on bioterrorism that was interrupted by the latest reports of anthrax poisoning. "I used to do work to kill people; today I'm trying to save lives."

Alibek is trying to persuade policy makers to focus on finding ways to beef up non specific immunity, a generic defense that would enable the immune system to defeat, or at least temporarily hold off, a broad array of bioweapons. It's possible, he says, that in the event of an attack, hormones inhaled or injected could quickly fortify the immune system against many different pathogens.

Among scientists, his is an outside view. Many of his peers question whether medical research is capable of making people immune to such a wide variety of threats.

Alibek acknowledges that much research is necessary before such a defense could become reliable. But with the right resources and talent, he says, it might only take a year or two for the United States to develop the knowledge.

"There is nothing fantastic in this approach," Alibek said. "We have already proven that this can work in animals."

Much of his work is now dedicated to nonspecific immunity. Alibek is president of Advanced Biosystems of Virginia, a small biotechnology company that has received several million dollars in government contracts to research the idea.

"It is a long shot, but everything I know about biological weapons tells me that this is far more promising than attempts to rig office buildings and public monuments with detection devices or to stockpile vaccines," Alibek wrote in "Biohazard," a book he published in 1999 about his work and his flight from the Soviet Union.

But some top scientists and others who have studied biological weapons are not nearly as optimistic.

"My knowledge says there's no way to modulate the immune system, but if there's a way to do that, all the power to Mr. Alibek," said John Mekalanos, chairman of the microbiology and molecular genetics department at Harvard Medical School.

Jeanne Guillemin, a senior fellow at the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of "Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak," said that Alibek's ideas are appealing, but impractical.

"The problems of the immune system are tremendously complicated, and they can't be solved with a magic bullet," she said. "In our desperation, we want easy solutions. But . . . if his ideas were worth pursuing, why wouldn't they have been already pursued further in broader science?"

Alibek graduated near the top of his class at the military medical institute at Tomsk, where he specialized in epidemi ology. While in medical school, Soviet officials recruited him to work for Biopreparat, the clandestine biological weapons program. By age 31, Alibek became the acting director of the Omutninsk bioweapons- production plant, a major facility in the Kirov region of Russia.

By 1989 - two decades after the US bioweapons program had shut down to comply with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which the Soviets signed along with 140 countries - Alibek had developed the world's most dangerous strain of anthrax, a weapon four times more virulent than the existing one.

Alibek's ideas do have their supporters.

"In some circles, there is resentment of Ken because they question his credentials," said Amy Smithson, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Henry L. Stimsom Center in Washington. "I'm not a micro biologist, but there are many in and out of government who think his approach makes good sense. Ken thinks beyond the obvious. . . . This kind of `out-there thinking' is what got us to the moon."

Nearly a decade after arriving in the United States, Alibek has never returned to Russia. He fled his homeland after deciding that politicians were lying to him and that the United States was not also producing bioweapons. In Russia, he is still considered an enemy of the state for his defection.

Sitting on a park bench outside the Capitol, he talked about his four children and their future in his adopted country. He worries about what may happen as the war against terrorism proceeds, but he's confident he's doing what he can to help.

"I cannot unmake the weapons I manufactured or undo the research I authorized . . . but every day I do what I can to mitigate their effects," he wrote at the end of "Biohazard." "This is my way of honoring the medical oath I betrayed so many years ago."
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.  Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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