National Geographic News
Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that causes bubonic plague.

Yersinia pestis (formerly Pasteurella pestis) has gained attention as a possible biological warfare agent.

Image from Science Source/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Jillian Keenan in Almaty, Kazakhstan

for National Geographic

Published September 23, 2013

In a dusty suburb near Almaty, Kazakhstan, where the Soviet-era buildings still hint at a different time, a slice of high-tech modernity has arrived—in the form of a $102 million biosecurity laboratory.

The Central Reference Laboratory (CRL) will open in 2015 and offer high-security lab space for scientists to study dangerous diseases and provide early warning of potential outbreaks. (Read about the global war on disease.)

The facility, funded by the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, will have the additional benefit of giving stable employment to scientists who might otherwise be tempted to sell their high-level and potentially destructive knowledge to hostile groups, said Lt. Col. Charles Carlton, director of the DTRA offices in Kazakhstan.

The facility will also be a secure place to archive existing disease strains. The threat of theft is real: In 2002, for example, authorities arrested a man who entered a biodefense facility near Almaty, apparently intending to steal the pathogens inside, according to a paper from the United States Institute of Peace.

The CRL will join an existing network of DTRA bio-threat reduction facilities—such as the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research that opened in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2011—that are designed to stop diseases, such as plague, from spreading globally.

Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plagues, is spread by rats and fleas. The disease emerged only about ten thousand years ago but has claimed hundreds of millions of lives during its brief time on Earth, including roughly one-third of the entire population of Europe in the 14th century, when the infection was called the Black Death. (See National Geographic plague photos.)

But it's not just a thing of the past: Plague is now regarded as a "re-emerging disease," with several thousand cases, including a current outbreak in northern Kyrgyzstan, occurring all over the world each year. Plague symptoms include sudden fever, chills, and extreme weakness.

Bubonic plague also produces swollen, painful lymph nodes, called buboes. Septicemic plague causes portions of skin to turn black and die. When caught early and treated with antibiotics, naturally occurring forms of bubonic and septicemic plague are not usually fatal. But pneumonic plague, the most severe, is harder to treat and is the only form of the disease that can spread from person to person.

Earlier this year, a study published in Infection, Genetics, and Evolution concluded that there's still a serious risk of plague originating in developing countries. (Related: "Spawn of Medieval 'Black Death' Bug Still Roam the Earth.")

That's why the new lab is so important: In the event of an outbreak of plague, anthrax, cholera, or other diseases, scientists would access a reference index of various disease strains for immediate identification, diagnosis, and treatment, said Carlton.

"The hope is that this will become a regional center for scientists from throughout Central Asia and the Caucuses to exchange information and conduct training and research," he said, adding that the CRL will act as a hub for a large network of Kazakh diagnostic laboratories. (See pictures of Astana, Kazakhstan's new capital.)

"That free exchange of information between scientists and researchers is really the biggest benefit."

Most Feared Disease

Plague has been used as an agent of bioterrorism since 1346, when the Tartar army hurled diseased corpses over the walls of Caffa, in present-day Ukraine, to infect the residents and conquer the city. But plague's devastating potential reached its peak with the Soviet Union's Biopreparat biological warfare agency. (See "Bubonic Plague Traced to Ancient Egypt.")

In 1979, the Soviet Ministry of Defense invited a promising young scientist named Vladimir Pasechnik to start his own bio-research lab with an unlimited budget.

The government had a peaceful or defensive explanation for every project, so at first Pasechnik believed he was part of a program, code named Problem Number 5, to develop vaccines for defensive purposes, according to Raymond Zilinskas, director of the Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

But over the next few years, Pasechnik gradually pieced together a terrifying picture. He realized that the lab he had created, called the Institute of Ultra Pure Biochemical Preparations, wasn't developing vaccines at all.

Instead, Pasechnik and his team were part of a massive program called Ferment, or Problem F, that had a specific—and sinister—goal: to weaponize diseases for use against people.

When Pasechnik eventually defected to the United Kingdom in 1989, he told British intelligence officers that he'd created something so horrible that he couldn't sleep at night: an aerosolized, antibiotic-resistant version of plague, the most feared disease in human history.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, that weaponized plague and a vast network of other dangerous materials remained.

Cell cultures of deadly pathogens were left in poorly secured facilities scattered across Central Asia and the Caucuses, and former Soviet scientists scrambled to find jobs, often for starvation wages. Zilinskas said that although the security situation at many of these former biological weapons facilities has improved, it is by no means perfect.

"There's a real biosecurity threat in countries of the former Soviet Union, and the Russian government is remarkably uncooperative in this area," he said.

"Russia's five anti-plague institutes are as secretive as they were in Soviet times, and we really don't know why. So countries like Kazakhstan and Georgia are logical collaborators for these global anti-plague efforts."

"No Boundaries"

According to B. B. Atshabar, director of the Kazakhstan Scientific Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases, plague is endemic to over 40 percent of Kazakhstan.

Atshabar added that global warming, which is thought to correlate with increasing rates of human disease transmission, enhances the risk. On top of that, Kazakhstan's growing network of oil pipelines—along which plague-infected rats can spread throughout the region—have also enhanced the threat, Atshabar said. (Related: "3 Surprising Ways Global Warming Could Make You Sick.")

"Infectious diseases have no boundaries," he said, speaking through a translator. "The natural area of plague—its territory—is expanding."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently list plague as a Category A or Tier 1 bioterrorism agent, which means that it is considered the highest risk and highest priority.

According to Kenneth Gage, chief of the Flea-Borne Diseases Activity in the CDC Bacterial Diseases Branch, plague is considered one of the most likely agents for bioterrorism because of its frightening historical associations.

"People are very scared of the plague. It has a powerful psychological factor," said Gage, who has served as a consultant on plague for the World Health Organization.

"Some people have argued that plague is the most dangerous bacteria known to infect man. You can get infected and within two days of showing symptoms, you're dead. It works that fast.

"So the risk posed by the possibility that these agents might fall into the wrong hands is worth the investment to build secure facilities."

Jillian Keenan traveled to Kazakhstan with a grant from the International Reporting Project.

4 comments
Ben Barlow
Ben Barlow

Most intersting in this article is the part, "...[it] will have the additional benefit of giving stable employment to scientists who might otherwise be tempted to sell their high-level and potentially destructive knowledge to hostile groups..." So the US is funding its construction and equipment, who will pay them decent salaries?  Nazarbayev?  Fat chance.  Unless we give them more stipends to compensate for poor salaries, there is no stopping the temptation to sell knowledge to hostile groups.  Seems a building like this would have been put more toward the interior of the country too, not in the south closer to those hostile groups and countries some people would deem dangerous.

Emily Elliott
Emily Elliott

For more information on this terrifying problem, read the still very relevant "Betrayal of Trust: the Collapse of Global Public Health" by Laurie Garret, 2000. She is the author of "The Coming Plague" and is tremendously knowledgeable on this topic.

Erin Dobrinen
Erin Dobrinen

I truly believe in having a system of high tech laboratories worldwide to combat disease is essential.  However, the lack of federal funding for high level laboratories within the United States (which would also assist during an outbreak or intentional release) is disturbing. 

DAVID PAWLOWSKI
DAVID PAWLOWSKI

It is a shame that the leadership of the ex-Soviet Union violated the treaties they signed with the U.S. regarding the production of biological weapons.  It should never be forgotten that Pneumonic plague had a 90% kill rate in the outbreaks that started in ~1346-48 A.D. that were believed to start with Marmots or Prairie Dogs infected with Yersinia pestis on the steppes bordering today's China.  Let us hope Putin does not start WW3.

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