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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Funds Russia Germ Warfare Labs

NOVOSIBIRSK, Western Siberia -- The U.S. government is funding research at Russian facilities that only two years ago were top-secret laboratories involved in the production of biological weapons, according to U.S. and Russian officials.

The pilot program, not previously made public, aims to keep Russian researchers well-employed at home, discouraging them from selling their lethal expertise on the world market.

Additionally, U.S. scientists say they hope to use the initiative, which began quietly about eight months ago, to share knowledge gained by Russian scientists who have, for 25 years, been testing the limits of such formidable biological threats as ebola, anthrax and shigella.

"Our prime objective is to try to engage those scientists that were involved in the old [Soviet] program," Colonel Dennis Duplantier of the U.S. Department of Defense said in confirming the initiative. "We're trying to keep them at the lab bench. We're concerned about the proliferation problem."

Dr. Chris Howson of the National Academy of Sciences, which is a prestigious society of top U.S. scientists, said his group was involved because it wanted to get its hands "on the wonderful expertise [at these facilities] and put it to work on improving global health, not harming it."

The program is being run by a joint committee of the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Academy of Sciences, and receives funds from both the U.S. Department of Energy and the State Department. The program's overall cost has not been calculated, officials said, but none of the eight research projects is budgeted at more than $20,000.

The projects include research on a Siberian river fluke that causes human liver cancer and a Russian-invented chemical that appears to retard the growth of ebola viruses in test tube studies. Howson said the project already had yielded results "contributing beyond our wildest expectations."

Next month, the U.S. agencies involved will review these small first efforts, officials said, and decide whether to go ahead with a million-dollar collaborative research program that would include allowing Russian scientists to work in the top security biohazards lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Scientists from the U.S. military and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta would, in turn, work inside Russia's former Biopreparat facilities.

If the plan goes through U.S. scientists will undoubtedly be shocked by what they see.

U.S. experts have been inside five Biopreparat facilities so far, Duplantier said, "and the magnitude overwhelmed us," both in terms of the sheer scale of the Soviet biological weapons program and the size of facilities, such as VECTOR in Siberia, which has more than 100 lab and administrative buildings.

Many of the laboratories were created by the then-Soviet Union in 1973, just months after the signing of the Bioweapons Treaty between presidents Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, according to information acknowledged in July by Russian officials in a meeting with representatives of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The treaty was to ban all research on bioweapons.

At that point, the officials said, the Soviet Central Committee created Biopreparat, an ultrasecret biological weapons program that involved laboratories at a minimum of 47 sites. The labs and test facilities, scattered across Russia, employed more than 40,000 workers.

During the past several years, U.S. officials began to worry that the demoralized, frequently unpaid scientists remaining with the program might sell off their unique skills and biological samples to belligerent nations. Much of the concern came in the wake of a 1993 report from British intelligence leaked to the London press that said the Russian military program may have accelerated and sold some of its products to at least one Middle Eastern nation -- Iran.

Although President Boris Yeltsin's government continues to insist it is destroying all vestiges of the Biopreparat program, this spring Jane's Weekly, a prominent British military publication, said Russian scientists had developed a genetically modified strain of the deadly bacteria anthrax -- a strain that can resist all available vaccines and antibiotics.

Howson said he asked about the anthrax claim and was told they do have strains that are resistant to vaccines and antibiotics. Sources within the U.S. intelligence community said the super-anthrax story does appear to be true.

The U.S. academy scientists said they hope collaboration could involve deciphering the genetic sequence of this bug and developing a vaccine against it.