Academy Calls for Program to Divert Bioweaponeers

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Science News Staff
1997-11-07 20:00
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W ASHINGTON , D.C.--The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report here today calling on the Department of Defense (DOD) to launch a $38.5 million initiative to fund collaborations between Russian scientists once involved in research on biological weapons and U.S. infectious disease specialists.

In the early 1990s, the Russian government drastically cut funds for civilian and military research, leaving many institutes scrambling to pay salaries and prop up a minimal level of science. To arms-control experts, the dwindling support was a double-edged sword: While work on many weapons projects ended, the analysts feared that Russian scientists might be lured to countries like Iraq and Libya. But encouraging the Russians to work with U.S. scientists instead, says NAS panel chair Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller University in New York City, would lessen the chances that skilled scientists, struggling to make ends meet, will "develop connections with parties interested in using their knowledge for hostile purposes."

In 1995, DOD asked the Academy to design a program to expand collaborations between U.S. scientists and their Russian counterparts who were involved in the Soviet biological weapons complex. In its report, the NAS panel recommends that the Pentagon fund about 70 joint projects on pathogens linked to biological weapons research, such as anthrax, plague, and viral hemorrhagic fevers. About two-thirds of the funds in the proposed 5-year "Pathogens Initiative" would go to the Russian teams, the rest to the U.S. participants. After the initiative runs its course, the panel recommends that DOD commit $10 million a year to perpetuate collaborations.

The Academy panel acknowledges that the program may backfire: It will sustain expertise in working with highly infectious organisms that could be applied to developing bioweapons. "The risk is genuine," says Lederberg. To minimize this risk, the Academy has stepped in to help design and oversee six pilot projects at two former weapons labs: The State Research Center for Virology and Biotechnology "Vector" near Novosibirsk, Russia, and the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology near Moscow.

DOD has already committed $75,000 to pilot projects on organisms ranging from the monkeypox virus to hantaviruses; it's unclear, however, if the Pentagon will push for a broader initiative, which NAS recommends starting up next year.

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