Washington-Across the Atlantic sits an arsenal of biological weapons. And six U.S. scientists, including three veterinarians, are working to keep it under wraps.
Washington-Across the Atlantic sits an arsenal of biological weapons.
And six U.S. scientists, including three veterinarians, are working tokeep it under wraps.
Their mission: To divert former Soviet defense scientists from biologicalweapons production and foster a scientific relationship focused on peacefulpursuits.
"In a sense, this assignment is geared to prevent the Russians fromdefecting to rogue states," says Dr. Bruce Scharf, a clinical veterinarianat State University of New York. "These are top scientists who hadformerly worked with biological warfare agents and now are working withmore conventional viruses. We're trying to get them working on understandingprevention measures as opposed to virus manipulation."
In October, the National Academy of Sciences program, funded throughthe U.S. Department of Defense, sent two teams of American scientists ontwo-week scientific exchange trips to Russia. Among the first group to leavewere veterinarians Dr. Charles Stoltenow, an Iowa State University epidemiologist,and Dr. Rebecca Morton, a microbiologist from Oklahoma State University.
Stoltenow spent time at Obolensk, home of Russia's State Research Centerof Applied Microbiology, about 60 miles south of Moscow. He says the country'seconomic depression and political unrest have created many defectors withinthe scientific community.
"There were once 3,000 scientists at Obolensk and now there's just1,000 workers," he says. "We asked where the others were and noone knows.
"Right now, these people earn just $500 a month. That's below thepoverty level. They're used to suffering, that's for sure."
To add to the distress, Russia has a lot of interesting veterinary problems,says Scharf, who paid a visit to Vector, the State Research Center of Virologyand Biotechnology in Novosibirsk, Siberia's capital.
"This place is enormous, bigger than anything you can imagine andthe security's topnotch, but these scientists don't even have their rabiesclassified," he says. "They have human cases of rabies and noneare genotyped. They also have problems with tick-born encephalitis and Lymedisease. Even avian influenza."
Still, in some arenas, the Russians are world-class scientists, Stoltenowsays. "They're fantastic with molecular bioengineering, they're justbad with applications. We work so different from what they're used to."
Russia's take on terrorism
Outside communication is sparse in the land of ice and snow, especiallyin the forest where Stoltenow was stationed. But when the DVM learned ofthe latest terrorism attacks, no one in Russia appeared surprised.
"During the first week I was in Russia, anthrax broke out in Florida,we started bombing Afghanistan and a Russian airliner was shot out of thesky," he says. "Of course the Russian scientists were upset bywhat happened in America, but they've been dealing with these extremistsfor 40 years. In a way, it's like they were saying, 'Welcome to my world.This is my reality.'"
The program calls for return trips to form "long-term collaborativeresearch efforts," but none have been scheduled thus far. Project leadersare waiting for the government's nod on funding, and in light of September'sterrorism attacks, Scharf says now it's more important than ever to stayin touch.
"If we can become friends, it would be much better for the world,"he says. "These people love Americans. They want to be like Americans.And we should learn to be a little more like them."