From Russia, with bugs
It seemed like such an innocuous idea to his new American scientific partners: take visiting Russian scientist Alexander Chepurnov out for dinner and a movie.
Some laboratory joker recommended that they take Chepurnov, head of a virology lab in Siberia, to see Mission: Impossible 2. When he settled into his seat in a Highland Park movie theater, expecting to see the latest American summer movie spectacular, he saw instead an eerie mirror image of his own life.
Within the first five minutes, Chepurnov watched, amused, as a Russian scientist working to create a genetically altered virus took what appeared to be a gene gun and shot himself in the arm with it.
Chepurnov smiles thinking about the movie--the character seemed so similar to himself, even down to the mustache.
So much so that his American colleagues squirmed uncomfortably beside him as the film's premise unfolded. The screenplay implies that this Russian was a key player in the Soviet biological-weapons program, collecting naturally occurring pathogens--"bugs"--and converting them into battlefield weapons.
Discussion after the film between Chepurnov and his American scientist counterparts focused on the feasibility of creating "chimera" viruses: viruses that have been genetically altered to take on various aspects of other viruses. HIV, for example, that is transmitted through the air like influenza.
There are few laboratories on earth designed specifically to create genetically altered viruses, but Chepurnov works at one of the biggest. He heads the Biosafety Level 4 virus laboratory at Russia's State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Siberia, commonly referred to in both countries as "Vector." Western experts and Soviet defectors say Vector once produced the same super-viruses that are the true villain of the movie.
Even though the Vector facility has been one of the few high points in the conversion of Russian virus labs to peaceful research, its name is still synonymous with the genetic experimentation that marked Russia's massive and clandestine biological-warfare program.
Russian scientists developed powerful ways to transmit anthrax, various forms of plague, and powerful strains, or "variants," of smallpox. Weapons for the battlefield--and for assassinating dissidents--were developed with gusto. Vector remains the largest virus storehouse in the world, with caches of smallpox, monkey pox, Marburg, Ebola, and different encephalitis strains. That unique expertise now makes the Russians an appealing vaccine research partner.
A year and a half ago, the U.S. government approached UT Southwestern Medical Center with the idea of forming a collaborative effort between Dallas and Siberia aimed at developing a vaccine against Ebola. The experiment was presented and paid for by the Department of Defense's radical research wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The U.S. Defense Department, in fact, is not only paying for the experiment, but now directly funds the operation of Vector in Russia as well. Through the distribution of grant money, the United States pays Chepurnov's salary whether he's in Siberia or Texas.
Ebola is a nasty virus, invading the host body by air and reducing a victim to a bloody, hemorrhaging mess within days. Outbreaks tend to burn out quickly because of its ferocity.
While the Ebola virus itself is rare in the industrialized world, making a vaccine's profit potential negligible, the experiment may pave the way for new research techniques in vaccinology. The most important point may be that experiments such as UT Southwestern's keep strapped Russian scientists from seeking work elsewhere: like North Korea or Iran.
Scientific projects, in fact, have become tools of foreign policy as well as advancement toward humanitarian and scientific ends. As skilled Russian scientists find themselves out of work, fears that they will find places in the labs of America's enemies are so profound that the U.S. government is funding the operation of the same labs--staffed with the same scientists, men like Chepurnov--that produced biological weapons.
Recent public fears about some vaccines notwithstanding, new advances in technology, the availability of public funds, and the increase in worldwide scientific collaboration have given scientists an opportunity to create new vaccines that break the mold.
Imagine a world where vaccine side effects are the exception, not the rule. Imagine a world that immunizes not through a needle, but through a nose spray or topical cream. Imagine a terrorist strike nullified by the quick administration of a shot that boosts your innate immune system to astronomical levels. Imagine boosters taken like vitamins.
In the ultimate swords-to-plowshares scenario, advances in the tools of bioweaponeering are being used to advance vaccinology. Vaccines are on the verge of a scientific--and hopefully an industry--boom. And some scientists at UT Southwestern are busy positioning themselves to capitalize on it.
Walking through the CBI labs can boost your IQ. It's the kind of place where staff members use the word "symmetrical" while giving directions to the bathroom.
Each room of CBI seems stocked with street-dressed geeks running computer programs or staring at test tubes. Homemade machines do specialized tasks; one of the coolest things about CBI is that its engineers will create any gizmo needed to conduct experiments, gizmos that just may become standard laboratory equipment for future geneticists.
Nothing is as boring as it appears at first glance. That clear box is actually a bacteria breeder. That chest-high plastic box is a gene sequencer. A sign over the coffee maker warns of animal-rights activists mailing rat poison-tipped razor blades to scientific labs, even though virtually no animal testing is done on the premises. Robotic arms dip into test tubes, and something called a "Mermade" synthesizes more algonucleotydes than any layperson could ever use.
The staff has to be smart. They are busy making equipment that other smart people will use to create maps of the genes of disease-causing pathogens. While one third of the center's efforts are devoted to vaccines, the other components deal with gene transcription and genetic analysis. CBI is funded by grants from the Defense Department and the National Institutes of Health, and it even boasts an anonymous private investor from the Dallas area who is anticipating a return in the form of sellable products.
The scientific buzzword that describes the staff is "integrated." Physicists, computer programmers, engineers, chemists, and geneticists work shoulder-to-shoulder, bringing their collective disciplines to bear on a single project.
They concentrate on breakthroughs that can be bought by companies or form the seeds of new biotech companies. The idea is to stay ahead of the scientific curve by predicting what research techniques and equipment gene researchers and commercial labs will need to make the next generation of vaccines.
The lab works with genetic segments, not active agents. Even though they are attacking the riddles behind some of the world's greatest killers--cancer, tuberculosis, Ebola, anthrax--there are no "hot" agents at the Dallas labs. Animal testing on potential vaccines is done at the University of New Mexico Medical Center in Albuquerque. In the case of the Ebola experiments, the tests will be conducted by Chepurnov on guinea pigs in Russia.
CBI's director is Dr. Stephen A. Johnston, a man who knows that what he does is fascinating and is waiting for the world to catch up to his thinking. On top of his double Ph.D. in genetics and plant genetics, he has a postdoctoral degree in biochemistry from the Pennsylvania State University Medical Center. Johnston is certainly textbook-smart, but he comes off as someone with even more important attributes: charisma and vision.
In Johnston's ideal world, the inventions he is creating will form the nucleus of a new industry in Dallas.
"I'd like to look out my window and not see a Salvation Army store but a row of biotech companies," Johnston says. "If we have more expertise, there may be more interest in keeping it here."
It is one of Johnston's simpler theories: If a university lab like CBI works on a potential product longer, it can sell it as a finished item rather than as an idea. That puts more leverage and brain-power in the hands of the inventors, who are based in Dallas. East and West Coast companies smelling a profit will be more likely to buy the product and keep the researchers right where they are. Other entrepreneurs will then buy products and start new companies around them, companies that locate their headquarters where the research was originally done.
CBI's niche is small compared with some other massive U.S. academic programs, but its specialization and willingness to explore long-shot projects make it unique.
"The idea is that we would produce enough technology...to have a steady income stream. Then we would really be able to do blue-sky development, getting the best people in the world to do biomedical research," Johnston says.
Johnston left as an associate professor at Duke University in 1990, saying UT Southwestern Medical Center was more open to ambitious thinking. He founded CBI in April 1998, about the same time the city's "Dallas Plan" was being drafted. The plan, a long-term blueprint for the city's future, proposed locating biotech companies along Harry Hines Boulevard, near UT Southwestern. Only a handful of biotech companies now call Dallas home.
Johnston is bargaining that his niche in the vaccinology world is growing in importance, and so far it appears he is right. The ability to make and alter genetic blueprints for disease-causing microbes has revealed unheard-of opportunities in designing vaccines. By knowing how a disease works, a scientist can design a way to block it or trigger a body's programmed response to a viral invader.
In the eyes of the research scientist, a golden age is whenever the government will fund risky research with new technology while the industry waits with handfuls of cash to develop and market the products. It's the American dream--save the world and make a buck. The U.S. government, prompted by fear of these biological hazards, confident in new technology, and flush with cash, is devoting new attention and money to vaccine research.
Proof of a changing attitude and looser purse strings came this year at a high-level think-tank meeting in Washington, D.C. Johnston was invited to the May 23 meeting, a discussion about the future of vaccines with his peers from public, private, and academic circles. No concrete agreement was signed, but the message was clear. "Unless we screw it up," Johnston says, "these are golden years for vaccinology."
When Chepurnov arrived at DFW Airport in early June, he carried an entire Ebola strain, broken into RNA fragments and positioned on glass panes, in his suitcase. The genetic pieces were inert, as inert as pieces of a bomb packed separately.
Ebola, made infamous in books like The Hot Zone and movies such as Outbreak, is a rare but lethal disease that is transmitted by air and has no known treatment. As the virus replicates in their blood stream, Ebola victims leak massive amounts of blood from the eyes, ears, and any other moist opening. The disease causes bloody vomiting, diarrhea, and eventual organ failure.
The term "crash" has been coined to describe the bloody disintegration of victims at the disease's final stage, when their organs have been liquefied and the hemorrhaging becomes a sanguine flood. It is a gruesome and extraordinarily painful way to die.
Chepurnov's genetic luggage is being broken down into smaller pieces called plasmids at a UT Southwestern Medical Center lab. Test groups of 20 plasmids will be isolated for animal testing. Those plasmid groups will be sent to Russian labs via courier for animal testing. The Ebola strain being used is designed to be especially virulent to guinea pigs. So in September, 300 guinea pigs will be shot with the test groups of plasmids, then dosed with the strain of Ebola. If any of the test animals shows resistance to the Ebola, then one of the 20 plasmids may have potential to become a vaccine for the disease; one part of the virus' genetic makeup triggered a defense response from the animal. A second round of testing will begin, given any promising results, narrowing down whatever it was that triggered the fighting reaction.
"There are other people that can do this type of testing, but not on the scale we need for our genomic screening," says Chepurnov's American counterpart, CBI's Johnston.
The Ebola experiment was the brainchild of DARPA, the wing of the Defense Department that funded cutting-edge experiments leading to microwave ovens, stealth technology, and the Internet. Other branches of the government, like the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health, also have a hand in running former Soviet laboratories.
"The center is interested in having stuff that can get out there. Ebola probably won't. We're not going to vaccinate everyone in the United States," Johnston says. "We're trying out new ideas with this Ebola vaccine that can be applied elsewhere, like HIV research. The question is, can we make a vaccine that is quite stable and will protect us from all the variants he [Chepurnov] has?"
Chepurnov has come a long way from his first science--botany. Before being recruited into Vector in 1983, at the age of 32, he worked at an experimental botanical garden. When his wife, an animal-control officer, was reassigned to Vector, he joined the virology laboratory. "I saw how interesting it was, hearing about it from her," he said.
Vector's future is plagued by ghosts of the past, and the rehabilitated lab doesn't like to be reminded of it. In 1988, Nikolai Ustinov, a 44-year-old researcher, accidentally shot himself in the thumb with Marburg virus while trying to infect a guinea pig.
The disease, then one of the more promising biological agents in the Soviet arsenal, is the kissing cousin to Ebola. Ustinov lingered in isolation, keeping a detailed journal of the disease's progress while his body literally disintegrated. The pages of his journal reportedly became increasingly splattered with gore as his skin turned paper-thin and his blood lost its ability to coagulate. His family stopped visiting him when the torment became too great to witness. He died, many say raving, after three weeks.
A virus actually becomes more virulent after passing through a human host; Ustinov found himself immortalized by having his infected blood harvested to make a better biological weapon called "Marburg Variant U." His body was sealed inside a metal box and buried.
"Yes, I knew Nikolai," says Chepurnov after a pause. He says there are no plaques or markers to memorialize the scientist. "His wife still works there, and we don't want her reminded, every day, of what happened."
That world, where death is a pinprick away, seems far away from the friendly intellectual atmosphere among the international scientists here.
Chepurnov, the former botanist, made it a point to compliment Johnston on his home flower garden and take photos. In fact, he and his senior research associate, Alexandra Dadaeva, made it a point to photograph everyone they met for sentimental, not security, reasons.
"We are really very busy, but when we have a little time we go to the museums," Chepurnov says. Their favorite: the Age of Steam Railroad Museum in Fair Park.
The pair are quintessentially Russian--pale, guarded, and pleasantly shy with strangers. From the earth-tone clothes to Dadaeva's lack of any makeup, it would be accurate to call them plain. They are from Siberia, after all, a region not known for its chic or its sunlight.
Chepurnov's thin, wan face and squinting eyes can become immediately appealing with a wide grin. Speaking with him without a translator is difficult if not impossible, yet it's hard to imagine he doesn't enjoy the shield of a language barrier when posed with tough questions.
Asked about tensions with hard-liners in Russia over receiving funds from the United States, Chepurnov flashes his easy smile and waves off the concerns.
"What is good now is that there are more contact with foreign countries, and more access to grant money," he says amiably. "The Russian people have always been friendly. They always like to meet people from other countries."
It's impossible to get Chepurnov to talk about engineering biological-warfare agents, despite the fact that he started working at Vector in 1983, when biological-warfare research was fueled by harsh Cold War rhetoric between the superpowers.
Asked to describe the swords-into-plowshares changes at Vector, Chepurnov gives a traditionally vague Russian answer: "It's very difficult to say what the difference is. All my research was designed to protect against American weapons."
It's clear that this brilliant scientist is no fool.
Johnston is more forthcoming. "I think Alexander was part of their [biological-weapons] program, and maybe was a major player," he says. "But that's part of history...I definitely think he prefers this way."
Keeping skilled Russians like him inside the world scientific loop has become a top priority for the U.S. government. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the biological-weapons programs fell into neglect. Vector lost half of its skilled staff and is now operating with fewer than 2,000 scientists.
Chepurnov says that many talented Russian scientists have left Vector in favor of the United States or England, but adds that none went to "terrorist nations." He never specified which nations qualify under that heading, and Russia and the United States have disagreed on that label before.
For example, verified stories of Russian bioweaponeers taking moonlight jobs in Iran have surfaced. The Iranians were paying $5,000 a month in salary, as opposed to the $100 a month the scientists received from Russian labs.
Other private biotech companies in Russia and satellite states like Kazakhstan have fallen under suspicion of selling strains and BW agent growth techniques to foreign governments.
Keeping these rogue elements in check by financing Russian projects became an early staple of post-Cold War relations. The result is an irony worthy of Alice in Wonderland: the U.S. Department of Defense footing the bill for Russian research into lethal bacteria and viruses.
"If the DOD does succeed in establishing some more significant projects, then you are more likely to see a U.S. scientist in their labs," says Amy Smithson, author of a report chronicling the effectiveness of the international programs like the one supporting Vector. "The scientist could learn a lot and know their real level of capability... It doesn't get any better than that."
The collaboration between Johnston and Chepurnov is only a small sign of the U.S. involvement with Russian biotech labs. Vector's role in vaccine projects is held up by scientists and politicians as a beacon of collaboration in an era in which the peace between Russia and the United States has become uneasy.
In the cash-strapped Russian economy, Vector needs international support--read "grant money"--just to stay open. Federal audits of grant money given to Vector show funds from the U.S. government account for about half of the institute's annual budget. While the State Department has yet to decide how to allocate next year's money, Russia's biological programs could get as much as $48 million, more than three times last year's level.
According to Amy Smithson's study for the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonprofit public-policy institute based in Washington, D.C., the United States embarked on four major "brain drain prevention programs" in Russia, spending $310.3 million in scientific grants between 1994 and 1998. Only $26 million went to biotechnology grants, funding a total of 178 peaceful biological projects. The bulk went to scientists in nuclear labs.
Subsidizing a Russian lab dedicated to the research of dangerous biological agents seems unreal given the past relations between the United States and Russia, especially where weapons of mass destruction are concerned. Organized bioweapons programs have existed in Russia since 1928 and continued as a top priority through every administration, including Mikhail Gorbachev's. In fact, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Gorbachev increased funding of biological warfare to new highs and commissioned the research of smallpox as a battlefield weapon.
The good pay, high social status, and opportunity to conduct groundbreaking research prompted many Russian scientists into BW programs. Others were recruited without knowing what they would be doing. In most cases, the scientists were hand-picked from the brightest students in medical school and brought into the secret labs, where even their most breathtaking progress was shielded from colleagues and the world for security reasons.
Their morale was inflated by their belief that they were in a biological arms race with the United States, when in reality President Richard Nixon put an end to the mass production of biological-warfare agents in 1969. Stockpiles in the United States were destroyed and research limited to defensive measures only.
The Soviets didn't believe a word of it, and the Russian offensive program continued apace, receiving massive amounts of funding. Perhaps the most respected lab in the sprawling system was Vector, which boasted a specially made viral reactor to grow viral cultures 24 hours a day.
Like Frankenstein's monster, Vector's reputation soon preceded it. Defectors and intelligence agents had been providing Western intelligence agencies with details of their projects for years, and attempts at tours turned into silly cat-and-mouse games between U.S. observers and Russian scientists hiding evidence. It was only after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union that the details of Vector's research were exposed in frightening detail.
Vector was dedicated to the creation and mass production of viral weapons, including smallpox, Marburg, Ebola, and even HIV. Defectors also described advances in the creation of genetically modified viruses, "chimera" viruses that combine several deadly agents into one pathogen.
Vector was started in the 1970s to specialize in viral research. For security reasons, the lab was founded in the small Siberian town of Koltsovo. There was another reason: Lab accidents were easier to cover up in small communities. The Russians had some practice with this. In 1979, workers in a weapons lab forgot to replace an air filter, and more than 100 townspeople died of anthrax. An entire night work force at a nearby ceramics plant was killed. Scores more were sickened. The incident was covered up for years.
After Vector was outed to the international community, it began its transformation into the poster child for a new peaceful, cooperative Russia. In truth, the United States was worried about reports that Russian scientists were being laid off and finding work in labs of "rogue states" such as Libya and North Korea. Funding and the promise of joint projects--such as the Ebola project at UT Southwestern--rolled in.
"I think of it as a supertanker that's turning around in the ocean," Smithson says. "It is such a huge facility, with thousands of scientists. There are so many other facilities that haven't made as much progress...I think the tanker is only half-turned."
Serious institutional problems exist with the pacification of the labs. Commercial management skills are lacking, and a minority within the programs resents the new, strange system. Smithson says that early exploitation from international entrepreneurs who borrowed ideas for some of the labs has left a bitter taste. Scientists must learn lessons about intellectual property rights and become accustomed to working within the confines of international scientific standards. Without that, no products can be sold on the international market.
The Ebola experiments being conducted have to wait until fall, after a DARPA-funded rehab of the Vector labs is completed, Chepurnov says.
But, as with other issues of détente, assistance given to the Russian labs is the target of criticism.
Congressional critics and secret-intelligence types were nervous about secret labs other than Vector, especially those run by the Russian military. The slow pace of the bioweaponeers' reforms and sketchy incidents rang alarm bells.
In December 1997, critics' fears received a boost: Russian scientists claiming to research improvements to anthrax vaccines "inadvertently" developed a new genetically altered strain of anthrax that renders other vaccines useless. And in 1999, Russia was criticized for keeping an enormous store of smallpox, which had been eradicated from the planet. Four weapons labs in Russia still exist with no inspection and no interplay with the outside world. They could be doing anything in there.
Fiscal critics also pointed out flaws in the program. Even as recent as this February, the General Accounting Office criticized the Energy Department's disbursement of the money, saying only 33 percent of the funds was making its way to Russian scientists. American project collaborators were taking the bulk of the money.
But during these diplomatic volleys, Vector's reputation somehow improved. "Vector is kind of setting the pace. It's probably the most open of all of them [the biotech labs]. People from outside are in there all the time," Smithson says. "Vector has also been the most aggressive with commercial spin-offs."
In late 1999, the administration quietly informed Congress that Vector had rebuffed offers from Iran to buy products, technology, and scientific expertise from its scientists. Vector has also been removed from the administration's BW "threat" list. In another positive step, the World Health Organization endorsed a proposal to conduct research into smallpox vaccines and anti-viral drugs at both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at Vector. The image of the mad scientist had been transformed into the benevolent researcher.
And that opened the door to joint projects like the ones being conducted at UT Southwestern. As far as the scientists are concerned, the swords have been beaten into plowshares and damn the paranoia.
"On our side, we were very sensitive to the fact that this was an offensive lab. I don't know how complete their transition has been," Johnston says. "I had to grill DARPA and State Department people. I said, 'We just have to trust you...Are you comfortable with this?'"
For Russian scientists, the open-air atmosphere between once estranged scientific communities helps minimize the risk by itself. Chepurnov now publishes his findings in Western scientific journals.
"There's no secret if it's public," he says.
Ironically, all this professional talk about the dawn of the new vaccine comes as the science is weathering a tough couple of years in the public eye.
Well-publicized rebellions by military personnel (including Texas Air National Guard pilots) against receiving anthrax vaccinations, serious doubts about the safety of the Hepatitis B vaccine, and well-documented, if extremely rare, medical problems with children who have received the rotovirus vaccine have driven public trust in vaccines to a new low.
The media and Internet junk scientists have also chipped away at the perception of vaccines, bringing legitimate and illegitimate concerns alike to the public's attention. In the public arena, misinformation can spread faster than a disease, and the media, politicians, and researchers themselves do a poor job of explaining the scientific issues involved.
"To be frank, 98 percent of scientists are incompetent in telling the public why vaccines are important," Johnston says. "We have a largely scientifically illiterate population, even in better-educated countries." He likens the reasoning of the vaccine conspiracy theories to astrology: With millions of people being administered doses, "you can connect everything to vaccines."
Still, increasing government hopes in vaccines and public mistrust make for a good opportunity for scientists like Johnston, whose work aims to dispel the reasons for fear. The largest fear is vaccines doing more harm than good because of withering side effects.
The old-school vaccinologist would simply take a watered-down version of a disease and weakly infect the subject. The subject's immune system would then defeat the bug, making the immune system ready to react to another similar infection. It's like training the good bugs in your system to fight the bad bugs that might invade.
The new system applies cutting-edge technology to proven science. By making a genetic map of anthrax, a scientist can isolate precisely which bit of genetic material triggers the host's immune system. The theory operates on the same concept as Skyy Vodka: fewer impurities, less of a hangover. By vaccinating with a single gene rather than the whole bug, the side effects are minimized.
This same science may allow for a single vaccine to counter several pathogens. Johnston described quick production of vaccines tailored to specific military missions, depending on the enemy's arsenal; production within a single day is feasible. Genomics also makes possible the quick identification of a pathogen, the first step in creating a vaccine or a counter to the weapon.
Johnston believes the hysteria over vaccines is caused in part by people's reliance on them. Smallpox and polio have been defeated. Routine immunizations now prevent childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, and haemophilus influenza and keep in check deadly illnesses like tetanus.
In the horror movies of the 1950s, scientists saved the world from monster outbreaks through new technological inventions. Now movies such as Mission: Impossible 2 have tapped into the fear of science and scientists' ability to create microscopic monsters that can kill us all.
(The Japanese illustrated their unique technophobia in the original Godzilla, with the monstrous product of atomic tests and the indiscriminate radioactive incineration of cities. The hero scientist in the original film burned his notes and killed himself administering the secret weapon that destroyed the beast, rather than bring a new horrible weapon into the world. The metaphor is not subtle.)
The relief that your child could be saved by new science is fading, replaced by a near-Luddite wariness of all things new. Now the questions highlight science's failure to get a vaccine for malaria, or a true cure for AIDS.
"People aren't scared out of their wits...It's largely the result of the success of the vaccines. People don't appreciate them anymore," Johnston says. "It's like killing your savior."
But there are some who are clearly scared by the prospect of biological outbreaks, both man-made and natural, and many of the spooked are high-ranking civilian and military officials. The military began realizing the armed forces' susceptibility to biological warfare while the civilians saw the specter of bio-terrorism lurking in water reservoirs and subways.
Suddenly the post-Cold War world had another frightening dimension to it--the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by those who had nothing to lose by using them. There was a new monster to slay, stalking the Western world like Grendel.
Dorothy Preslar, a director of disease research for the Federation of American Scientists, a privately funded advocacy group that analyzes global security issues, says that the most likely scenario of biological-weapon use would be for an economic, rather than political, motive.
"I feel it is much more likely that bioterrorism will take the form of economic terrorism against cattle or crops," she says. "As we go forward and more countries come along with their own economies, they will threaten established industries, and if you want to knock out an industry for a while, you might try it."
Preslar says a recent hoof-and-mouth disease outbreak in Taiwan shows the profit potential of a biological attack. After the disease broke out in Taiwan's pork industry, it took authorities eight months to control the outbreak and prove that a global boycott was no longer necessary. The ban on Taiwanese pork opened the doors to other countries, which filled the gap of the pork market.
"Some feel this was a BW attack from China, but I don't buy that for a minute," she says. "I think it was just a sick pig."
The fears, exaggerated or not, lit a fire under administration officials. DARPA was already interested in vaccines and other countermeasures against bio-weapons, but the new emphasis gave scientists new money and new leverage in pursuing ambitious projects. "You hype the current threat to meet a future threat," Preslar says.
She adds that the political will is there and the money is coming, making the future of vaccinology a bright one. Within a quarter century, it would be possible to vaccinate the U.S. citizenry against potential attack, she says, if the public and the government support it. But even in best-case scenarios like Preslar's, when people are confident in vaccines and the money is there to mass-produce them, populations still wouldn't be fully protected against new disease agents. "Will it deter all possible threats? No, because there are the crazies. But the crazies probably do not have the technology to keep ahead of the vaccine curve."
But some detractors of vaccine programs have also skewered the idea that scientists can keep up with countermeasures to biologically engineered agents. What's the point of inoculating yourself against anthrax when an enemy also has plague, Ebola, or tuberculosis in his mortar shells? And what's the point of inoculating against those diseases if they can be genetically modified to beat the vaccines?
What doctors need is a drug that can attack anything. They must find a way to shore up a victim's defense until the bug can be identified and countered.
Seeing this niche, Johnston and others are concentrating on the idea of a nonspecific shot that would crank up a subject's immune system to counter any biological threat. The idea is being explored in many labs--a race to create the ultimate immune-system enhancer.
At Dallas' CBI, efforts are concentrated on Parapox, a naturally occurring disease that infects sheep. In humans it causes harmless scabs on the skin that fall off in two to four weeks if not treated. Contraction of the disease boosts the innate immune system of humans to soaring levels, leading researchers to believe that it could be the basis for an all-purpose pill that could protect soldiers--or citizens--just before or after exposure to a lethal agent.
"It's an innate response, and no one knows exactly what it's doing," Johnston says. "There seems to be no side effects from turning up your innate immune system."
Alexandra Dadaeva's business card has two sides--one side written in Russian, the other in English. Her professional ties to the United States are getting tighter.
She apologizes to the crowd of scientist-spectators at the Center for Biomedical Inventions for her halting English and embarks on the description of the Ebola experiments, the topic of her recent seminar. An overhead projector shows color-coded graphs of the virus' impact on various animals. The progression of the disease, and of suspected vaccines, is shown not through graphic images but through numbers, data. It is her first international seminar.
She reads from a sheet of paper held with unpainted fingers. Words slip through the dual language barriers of Russian and science-speak; "fatal outcome," "lethal challenge," and "hemmoraghic fever." One chart reads "Day Nine: Death." Some in the audience, mostly younger lab staffers in the back, drift off to sleep during the speech.
They awaken during the Q & A. All of a sudden they are alert. Dadaeva's canned speech becomes a discussion about the cause of Ebola and the introduction of Ebola to the animals.
At one point, Dadaeva confesses that Vector has a tough time obtaining monkeys for tests. According to published reports from defectors, there was a time when the Russian scientists on staff would joke about stealing the monkeys' fresh fruit because the animals ate better than the staff. Now they can't afford any on which to conduct tests.
"The problem now is that there isn't enough money," Chepurnov explains later. "We can't pay the people we have, and people with a good education won't work there."
It is hard to believe Dadaeva's humble presentation is the new wave in Russian-U.S. harmony, the product of a million political and diplomatic miracles. But it's a small slice of Cold War history, the kind of minor meeting of the minds that propels entire nations toward peace, or war. It was boring and dramatic, all at once.
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