Interview with Serguei Popov
Serguei Popov is a former scientist in the Russian biological warfare program. After obtaining a degree in biochemistry, he served as a division head in Vector and Obolensk, branches of the Soviet program dedicated to developing genetically enhanced bioweapons. His position allowed him to expand his research into the fields of molecular biology and microbiology.
Homeland Defense: Did Factor also work with the classical agents?
Serguei Popov: Yes. The initial vision was that the old classical biological weapons would acquire new, unusual properties so that, for example, prophylaxis would be difficult. Project goals included high virulence, high stability, and surprising new outcomes for the disease in order to confuse treatment. To achieve those goals, there were several directions. The first was to express short biologically active peptides. Then there was an attempt to introduce toxin genes into those strains. The toxin genes could be short peptide toxins or they could be proteins.
Homeland Defense: For the benefit of the non-scientific audience, could you describe what a peptide basically is?
Serguei Popov: A peptide is a short protein fragment. Peptides are of the same origin and display properties of proteins. But peptides are more direct in their action and properties. They may target specific functions. We have an example of small peptides like endorphins or enkephalins. Those peptides are approximately
Small peptides that are neuro-active were capable of changing behavior. Some peptides also created changes of behavior and could have other activities, because they were multifunctional peptides. One example of this was vasopressin, which affects blood pressure. Some peptides were toxins, while others offered a completely new approach for causing autoimmune diseases.
Homeland Defense: Was it your goal to produce the toxins in quantities sufficient by themselves, or was it always part of your plan for one organism to produce the toxins inside the host?
Serguei Popov: The final goal of Factor was to create microorganisms that produce these toxins inside the host. But there was another program that dealt directly with toxins themselves. It was closely linked to Factor because when we studied the action of toxins engineered into microbes, we had to know their behavior, meaning we needed them in control experiments. The goal of genetically engineering the weapons was to create strains of microorganism producing toxins, such as viruses coding for toxins and ultimately producing toxins
In Obolensk, we did extensive experimentation with different bacteria carrying a myelin gene. We finally found that an agent called Legionella created very strong immunological responses. The myelin peptide it produced was very immunogenic because the immune system was activated by the infectious process. That’s what resulted in paralysis and death of infected experimental animals. And what is important as well, a lethal dose was much lower, only a few Legionella cells.
Serguei Popov: In general, there is a basic technique to make a viral or bacterial genome easier to manipulate genetically. First you take a gene of interest and you put it in a suitable biological vehicle, often called a vector. Here the gene can be changed, and new properties can be added. More importantly, the vector could be introduced into a bacterial strain, so that the bacteria will carry it, and will acquire the properties to produce the substance the gene codes for. Usually, the bacterial host is harmless, but it can be pathogenic. The gene product can be pathogenic as well. In the above case of the myelin peptide, [the] immune system eliminates the bacteria that produced it, but the peptide triggers a slow destructive immune response. And you are right when you say people in biodefense have never considered this approach.
Let me provide you with another example of a new bioweapon idea, which was under development when I left Russia. Imagine plague carrying a whole copy of a virus. You would expect that people infected with genetically engineered strains of plague would be treated for plague. But the antibiotic treatment would actually make the patient worse because of the antibiotic-induced release of the virus from its copy. A virus infection on top of a bacterial infection may be a situation you will never be able to properly deal with.
Homeland Defense: So you don’t have the virus until you kill the bacteria?
Serguei Popov: No, you don’t.
Homeland Defense: In the exercise we did in May, called “Topoff,” in Denver, we did the simulation of a plague attack, and they chose plague because treatment, in theory, is simple. You just need to provide people with antibiotics. But in your scenario, it wouldn’t matter. No matter how effective we are at controlling it, the more antibiotics you pass out, the more viruses you release?
Serguei Popov: Exactly. Each disease has completely different symptoms and incubation periods, which means treated people will appear healthy and think they are fine. But the treated people are still sick. They simply don’t know it. And a new viral disease can appear after a few days in cases of recombinant plague, or two or three weeks in case of recombinant Legionella. People will experience paralysis, and their central nervous system will cease to function.
Homeland Defense: And how long does it take for this paralysis to take effect?
Serguei Popov: It’s difficult to say, but the disease itself in animals is quite fast (a few days).
Homeland Defense: Some of the peptides you’ve mentioned are extremely novel. But in looking at some of your viral agents, was it more in your interest to create new properties, or to perpetuate existing systems?
Serguei Popov: Initially, the purpose was to bring new properties to existing strains. But the whole program shifted development in the 1980s into new strains. We struggled with the problem of small peptides creating new properties, putting them into active strains. We began to ask ourselves, “Why should we insert peptides into classical strains when we could put them in new strains with new properties, and it could become a weapon even more difficult to deal with or cure?” So the whole plan of the program was shifted to making new virulent strains. In this area, I was relatively successful in making autoimmune peptides effective.
Homeland Defense: Out of curiosity, was tularemia an interest of your program?
Serguei Popov: Well it was, but it was considered an old workhorse, an old vehicle. In terms of genetic engineering with tularemia, there was little activity.
Homeland Defense: How about mycoplasm?
Serguei Popov: We didn’t try that. I know that they looked at it, but that was in a different institute.
Homeland Defense: You mentioned the development of “subtle agents,” using biopeptides and bioregulators. Did Vector also work on similar agents that would affect people from a psychological perspective?
Serguei Popov: Yes, endorphins, enkephalins, and other neuromodulating peptides. It has been discovered that personalities could be adjusted with these agents. For example, you could make people more aggressive. Or you could create feelings of insomnia, where people wanted to sleep, but would never feel tired.
Editor’s note: The Journal of Homeland Defense disagrees with the Soviet claim that such activity was legal. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention prohibits any type of activity (development, production, or stockpiling) regarding the offensive use of biological or toxin weapons.
On a winter's afternoon last year, in the hope of discovering just what the Russians had done, I set out along Highway 15 in Virginia to visit Serguei Popov at the Manassas campus of George Mason University. Popov came to the National Center for Biodefense after buying a book called Biohazard in 2000. This was the autobiography of Ken Alibek, Biopreparat's former deputy chief, its leading scientist, and Popov's ultimate superior. One of its passages described how, in 1989, Alibek and other Soviet bosses had attended a presentation by an unnamed "young scientist" from Biopreparat's bacterial-research complex at Obolensk, south of Moscow.
Following this presentation, Alibek wrote,
"the room was absolutely silent. We all recognized the implications of what the scientist had achieved. A new class of weapons had been found. For the first time, we would be capable of producing weapons based on chemical substances produced naturally by the human body. They could damage the nervous system, alter moods, trigger psychological changes, and even kill."
When Popov read that, I asked him, had he recognized the "young scientist?"
"Yes," he replied. "That was me."
I asked Popov whether bioweaponeers could design pathogens that induced the type of effects usually associated with psychopharmaceuticals.
"Essentially, a pathogen is only a vehicle," Popov replied. "Those vehicles are available -- a huge number of pathogens you could use for different jobs. If the drug is a peptide like endorphin, that's simple. If you're talking about triggering the release of serotonin and dopamine -- absolutely possible. To cause amnesia, schizophrenia -- yes, it's theoretically possible with pathogens.
If you talk about pacification of a subject population -- yes, it's possible. The beta-endorphin was proposed as potentially a pacification agent. For more complex chemicals, you'd need the whole biological pathways that produce them. Constructing those would be enormously difficult. But any drug stimulates specific receptors, and that is doable in different ways. So instead of producing the drug, you induce the consequences. Pathogens could do that, in principle."
Psychotropic recombinant pathogens may sound science fictional, but sober biologists support Popov's analysis. Harvard University professor of molecular biology Matthew Meselson is, with Frank Stahl, responsible for the historic Meselson-Stahl experiment of 1957, which proved that DNA replicated semi-conservatively, as Watson and Crick had proposed. Meselson has devoted much effort to preventing biological and chemical weapons.
"As our ability to modify life processes continues its rapid advance, we will not only be able to devise additional ways to destroy life but will also become able to manipulate it -- including the fundamental biological processes of cognition, development, reproduction, and inheritance."
I asked Meselson if he still stood by this. "Yes," he said. After telling him of Popov's accounts of Russian efforts to engineer neuromodulating pathogens, I said I was dubious that biological weapons could achieve such specific effects. "Why?" Meselson bluntly asked. He didn't believe such agents had been created yet -- but they were possible.
Current research is investigating agents that target the distinct biochemical pathways in the central nervous system and that could render people sedate, calm, or otherwise incapacitated. All that targeting specificity could, in principle, also be applied to biological weapons.
The disturbing scope of the resulting possibilities was alluded to by George Poste, former chief scientist at SmithKline Beecham and the sometime chairman of a task force on bioterrorism at the U.S. Defense Department, in a speech he gave to the National Academies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, in January 2003.
According to the transcript of the speech, Poste recalled that at a recent biotech conference he had attended a presentation on agents that augment memory:
"A series of aged rats were paraded with augmented memory functions.... And some very elegant structural chemistry was placed onto the board.... Then with the most casual wave of the hand the presenter said, 'Of course, modification of the methyl group at C7 completely eliminates memory. Next slide, please.'"
Serguei Popov has lived with these questions longer than most. When I asked him what could be done, he told me,
"I don't know what kind of behavior or scientific or political measures would guarantee that the new biology won't hurt us."
But the vital first step, Popov said, was for scientists to overcome their reluctance to discuss biological weapons.
"Public awareness is very important. I can't say it's a solution to this problem. Frankly, I don't see any solution right now. Yet first we have to be aware."
Pathogens that were successfully weaponized by the organization included (in order of completion):
- Bubonic plague
- Venezuelan equine encephalitis
- Marburg virus (believed to be under development as of 1992)
- Ebola (believed to be under development as of 1992)
- Machupo virus (believed to be under development as of 1992)
- Veepox (hybrid of Venezuelan equine encephalitis with smallpox)
- Ebolapox (hybrid of ebola with smallpox)
Annual production capacities for many of the above listed pathogens were in the tens of tons, typically with redundant production facilities located throughout the Soviet Union.