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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Germ Warfare Lab Has Open House




OBOLENSK, Moscow Region -- The once top-secret research complex where the Soviet Union perfected dozens of strains of deadly microorganisms threw open its doors this week to scientists from around the world.


The director of the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology, located in Obolensk, a two-hour drive from Moscow, invited 200 scientists from 10 countries and Western officials to what was once a crown jewel of the Soviet germ warfare empire, so hidden that it was not listed on Soviet maps.


In the Soviet era, 3,000 scientists and technicians worked for more than 20 years to develop weapons from anthrax, glanders, plague, tularemia and other lethal or debilitating diseases.


Now the center is inviting scrutiny to demonstrate its determination to conduct peaceful work like preventing bioterrorism and curing disease. Scientists at the three-day conference discussed the new research and were given an extensive tour of several of the 90 buildings.


The meeting was to close Wednesday with the announcement of $1.6 million in additional U.S. assistance to help the institute chart a peaceful course.


U.S. officials said the U.S. initiative included $935,000 from the Pentagon to upgrade security at this sprawling complex to prevent the theft or diversion to hostile states of the hundreds of strains of deadly germs that are stored here.


At the opening session, the director of the center, General Nikolai Urakov, pledged to open the "curtain of secrecy" that enshrouded the 25-year-old complex and to dispel the "lack of trust" in its conversion from military to peaceful research.


Urakov said he wanted to expand cooperation with the United States, European nations and other countries that have forsworn germ weapons.


He said although the institute had shrunk by half, to 1,125 employees, and the lab had not overcome the economic crisis caused by the Soviet Union's collapse, the staff was stabilizing, and some scientists had even returned after working abroad or in business.


Western officials said international aid to Obolensk provided the means to employ more than half the scientists.


The U.S. assistance and other foreign aid, which is administered through an international group that audits grants to insure they are spent on designated research, has given more than $3.4 million to Obolensk. Only Vector, the country's other leading former germ warfare center, has received more assistance from the international group, the International Science and Technology Center. Vector once specialized in turning viruses into weapons.


On Tuesday, conference participants were given a tour of the complex and its infamous Building No. 1, an austere nine-story glass and metal structure where the most top secret weapons research was once conducted.


Roaming through the labs and chatting informally with their Russian counterparts in areas that were once off-limits to anyone not wearing special suits, the scientists discussed the research into peaceful goals, including tuberculosis, anthrax vaccines and molecular genetics.


Floyd Horn, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, called the quality of the presentations superb.


Scientific cooperation between Russian and American scientists would "clearly benefit both parties," he said.


Horn's agency is providing $325,000 this year for research into pig diseases, along with computer equipment that will give this center access to the American National Agricultural Library.


A Defense Department official said the meetings, the tour and the growing U.S. and international access "dispels the suspicion that Obolensk is still conducting offensive germ research."


Several conservative legislators and intelligence experts contend that Moscow is continuing to pursue such research. But a recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found no evidence of such research.


In interviews this week, Russian scientists said they were determined to relegate the past work in such areas to history. "We still are not permitted to discuss the past," a scientist said. "But we know our future lies in fighting the terrorism and diseases that threaten all mankind."


Several scientists said privately they were delighted by their growing contacts with their Western counterparts and the end of the isolation that they had once endured as germ warriors.


Life remains difficult in Obolensk, where many top scientists, paid less than $100 a month, are required to have second jobs to make ends meet.


But many scientists said they were encouraged to remain in science not only by the prestige that such employment still brings in society, but also by new exchanges with American colleagues.