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The Skeptic's Corner

By Duke Heath

In the early eighties, I devoured every book by Stephen King I could find. When King alone could not satisfy my appetite for horror, I began reading Dean Koontz and other authors in the genre. Though my tastes have changed over the past ten years, I recently finished what is, by far, the most horrifying book I have ever read. The most frightening aspect of this book, BIOHAZARD, by Ken Alibek, is that the genre is not horror or fiction, but non-fiction.

Ken Alibek is the former head of the Soviet Union's bio-weapons program. BIOHAZARD is the true story of the largest covert biological weapons program in the world, written by the man who ran it after he defected to the U.S. in 1992. Under Alibek, the Soviet Union developed several highly efficient biological weapons, including tularaemia, plague, ebola, and anthrax.

The anthrax the Soviets developed is the most drug resistant, highly weaponized form of the disease found on earth. This highly deadly and potent strain of the bacteria was discovered after an accident at a bio weapons lab leaked liquid anthrax into the sewers. Soon rodents became infected with anthrax. Though the sewers were regularly disinfected after the accident, the disease lurked underground for years.

Three years after the accident, a rodent was discovered with an extremely virulent and resistant new strain. It was from this rodent that the foundation of the Soviet anthrax program was built. The Soviet anthrax program manufactured and stored twenty tons of anthrax each year. This "Anthrax 836," as it is called, is so highly weaponized that under ideal conditions 100 kgs. could kill more than three million people in a large city.

When Ebola suddenly appeared in Marburg Germany, the KGB brought the virus back to the Soviet Union. The virus became the most lethal weapon in the program. Though plans were in place to attack western cities with aerosols of these weapons should war break out, they were not the main weapons to be used against the U.S. That weapon? Smallpox!

In 1959, a traveler from India infected 46 Muscovites with smallpox. Though the traveler had been vaccinated several years earlier, he had become a carrier for an unusually virulent form of the disease. The Soviet Union sent a team to purge India of this highly infective form of smallpox. The KGB went with them and brought back a strain of Indian smallpox excellently suited for weaponization. The Soviets stockpiled twenty tons of this virus per year as far back as the seventies.

It takes ten to twenty thousand spores of anthrax to infect someone. Fewer than five particles of the India smallpox strain will infect an individual. That individual will then become infectious, with the ability to infect others with just a cough. Smallpox usually takes seven to ten days to incubate. The India strain takes only one to four days to incubate. This short incubation severely limits the role of vaccinations after an attack.

The single scariest fact in the book was the salary the Soviets paid their top people in the bio-weapons program. When Ken Alibek was inspecting the Pine Bluff Asenal, he inquired about how much someone with his knowledge could make in this country. He was told it would easily be in the six figure range. The head of the Soviet Union Bio-Weapons program was making about one hundred dollars a month at that time. So now he is on our side. But what of his hundreds of colleagues with the same knowledge? What of the hundreds of tons of bio-weapons manufactured in the Soviet Union during his leadership?

Hundreds of KGB agents were instructed in how to transport bio-weapon strains in small vials across borders. These instructions were designed to get exotic viruses into the weapons program from all parts of the world. The same instructions could easily allow for transport of highly evolved bio-weapon strains to any government or terrorist group in the world for the right price. The money is obviously out there, as are the India smallpox and Anthrax 836 strains.

Ironically, the dramatic fall of the Soviet Union and resultant lack of rigid controls over their bio-weapons programs probably placed us in more danger from biological warfare than we had been in before the collapse.