Ken Alibek: Preparing for the range of bioterrorism possibilities
Dr. Ken Alibek defected to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1992, after serving in their biological weapons program for more than twenty years. He has since served as a consultant to numerous United States government agencies dealing with medical microbiology, biological weapons defense, and biological weapons nonproliferation. Dr. Alibek is the president of Advanced Biosystems, Inc. He joined CNN.com chat room from Virginia.
CNN: Welcome to CNN.com Ken Alibek. Thank you for being with us today.
ALIBEK: Hello to everyone.
CNN: Many people are now wondering if these anthrax episodes are the work of Osama bin Laden. What are your thoughts regarding his capabilities for carrying out what we are seeing now or even worse?
ALIBEK: You know, this is no more than an assumption, that it was done by bin Laden. In order to find the right answer, we need to do a little work. Of course, I have no idea what the FBI and CDC do in this field, but here is what I would do. As quickly as possible, I would want to find out whether or not it was done by professionals. For example, we can study virulence of these pathogens. Second, a stage of development of spores, particle size, particle form, what additives were used, what was the medium they used to grow this agent. And so on and so forth. This type of information could help us tremendously to understand if this was done professionally or by amateurs. Then we can see, for example, if we find some similarities in these weapons, to see if they're from Iraq, or whatever source.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you feel that if the faction that has been mailing anthrax had the means and the quantity, they would have mass infected us already? Do you believe this is a mass fear tactic?
ALIBEK: First of all, I don't consider this attack as a massive attack. They found an unusual way to infect people. This technique could not result in mass casualties. But at the same time, it could produce some number of casualties and cases of infection. But what worries me in this case could have a possible significance of economic impact, economic damage. Probably in the near future, we will see a significant slow-down in postal service, which is going to affect our economy.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How many cases of inhalational and cutaneous anthrax have been reported prior to September, 2001?
ALIBEK: Inhalation anthrax is a very rare form of anthrax. It could result only from inhalation of about 10,000 or 20,000 spores. The last case reported was about 25 years ago. One of the biggest cases occurred in the United States in recent history was in 1956 or 1957, when a worker who sorted wool was infected. The cutaneous form is a more frequent form of anthrax. I'm assuming maybe one or two cases a year, sometimes one case in two years, but generally it's not widespread here in the United States.
CNN: What can you tell us about many of your former colleagues in the former Soviet Union who were bio-technology scientists? Where are they now, and do you believe there is a danger that they could be involved in subversive activities?
ALIBEK: The great majority of them are still in the former Soviet Union. Some scientists have left Russia, the former Soviet Union, in the '90s. They went everywhere: the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany. There was some information about people who left for Iran, and some are in Middle Eastern countries. One of the biggest problems we face now, all those people, even scientist, even those who are in Russia now, they present quite a significant, not threat, but an information source for possible buyers. We need to find a way how to employ them. It's much cheaper just to spend some money now to get them employed and do scientific work and not let them to sell their expertise to somebody else.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr Alibek - we are being repeatedly told that the germination time or time from exposure for inhalational anthrax is 2 to 14 days, yet some of the cases in Russia in the '70s apparently took 60 days. What is the longest recorded time from exposure to symptoms for inhalational anthrax?
ALIBEK: In all my experiments during the '80s, using animal models, we have never seen the incubation be longer than the seven days. Actual cases of anthrax in Russia in 1979 showed that some people contracted this infection even 60 days after exposure. There was significant discussion why. My opinion is that people who got infected, who got diseased in 40, 45, 60 days, were infected by secondary aerosols. When they launched a huge maintenance work, and disinfection work.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: I know bioweapons only are of limited danger because they tend to die out. How effective have bioweapons become?
ALIBEK: You know, what's important to keep in mind is that nobody expects biological weapons to survive for days and for months in the environment and in the air. Biological weapons, when they are deployed, create biological aerosols, which travel downwind. They are capable to cover tens of miles distance while they travel, and are still viable. Usually that's enough to have an effective coverage.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Alibek, do you believe that more anthrax cases will be reported? Do you feel as though the vaccine should be made readily available to prevent more contractions of disease?
ALIBEK: Of course it's very difficult to say how many cases of anthrax we will see in the future. It's possible we will see new cases. But at the same time, we need to understand that the biological weapon threat is not just anthrax and smallpox. It's a large number of biological agents, deployment techniques and prevention techniques. What we need to understand that there are groups who understand the power of biological weapons, and I'm afraid that you will see new cases of some other infections. And when we discuss vaccinating people against anthrax, I don't support this idea. It's impossible to vaccinate the entire population of the United States against anthrax. Even if we imagine a fantastic situation, that we vaccinated everybody, they could use something else.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the preferred method for 'cleaning up' after an anthrax contamination so as to keep the spread of it under control?
ALIBEK: First, anthrax is not contagious. But at the same time, it could be transferred from person to person, but not like the regular transmittable infection. For example, if someone is touching a contaminated letter, and then comes in contact with someone bearing a sore on the hand, or something like this, the infectious cutaneous anthrax could be given to the second person. In order to prevent such transmission of the spores, it's important to know how to disinfect your offices. You can, for example, use regular detergents, Lysol, or hydrogen peroxide in low concentration for the infection. But if somebody is afraid of opening letters, I can understand that, of course, but you can use a regular iron, and iron the letters. The probability of the spores surviving is much lower.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can a mailroom be equipped to detect it?
ALIBEK: It's difficult to imagine that. The problem is that concentration could be very low. But there are some identification systems to check surfaces, letter surfaces, and these systems could work. But again, for now it's anthrax. How about tomorrow? It could be something different. But what's important, and this idea just came to me now, maybe there is a company somewhere in the United States interested in developing a sort of piece of equipment for checking letters. It could reduce the threat of being infected via mail.
CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us today?
ALIBEK: All these recent events show us that bioterrorism is not something fantastic or something we could never see. Now we have seen some unfortunate attempts to use biological weapons to kill and scare people. I'm afraid it's not the end of the story. These people understood how vulnerable we are, and they will try to do something to make us fearful again. In this case, what's important to understand is that our government should reconsider and rectify our understanding of biological weapons. We don't have to think that it's just anthrax and smallpox. There are a huge variety of biological weapons, and many different deployment techniques. As soon as we understand this, we'll understand what kind of problems we have in the field of biodefense. Let's have an understanding of what's not been solved yet, and we'll be finally able to determine what kind of defense we need to develop, and we will finally start developing appropriate and intelligent defense against biological weapons.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today.
Ken Alibek joined CNN.com Newsroom via telephone from Virginia. CNN provided a typist for him. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Tuesday, October 16, 2001.
Advance Biosystems: biodefense.net
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