House subcommittee holds hearing to assess Russian biological threats

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing on Wednesday to assess the biological weapons threat in Russia and Central Asia.

Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the Soviet Union kept its biological weapons program secret during the Cold War era, employing more than 60,000 scientists to develop biological agents. While the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program has helped to upgrade the security at some of the facilities that produced the biological agents, Smithson said the U.S. must continue to reinforce security and the principles of nonproliferation.

"Given the potential devastation that could transpire should what is in the freezers of these institutes make its way into malevolent hands, policymakers should resist the temptation to consider this box as checked off the 'to do' list," Smithson said. "The U.S. government should spare no effort to continue to engage biological scientists and institute managers in Russia and Central Asia to reinforce the principles and practices of nonproliferation, to improve physical security at these sites, to train the scientists in best practices, and to enhance their disease surveillance capacity."

David Franz, the former commander of the U.S. Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), said the proliferation of biological agents is functionally over, as proliferation of knowledge, technologies and capabilities is now global. He said establishing new relationships may be one of the best ways to reduce the chances of biological attacks.

"If real scientists and clinicians engage for mutually relevant reasons, the outcome is typically far different, it is beneficial to our partners and enhancing our own health- and national security," Franz said. "While our understanding of intentional threats and natural disease risks globally will never be even close to perfect, it could be better. We must be alert to the ever-changing biological world around us. Friends can and do help us... when and where we have them."

Christopher Davis, a former member of the Defense Intelligence Staff of the U.K., referred to the biological threat in Russia as "the elephant in the room." He alleged Russia never admitted to the real size and capability of its biological weapons systems and has failed to get rid of its bioweapons program.

"What happened to the policies and tactical and strategic plans for the use of the many types of weapons that were developed?" Davis said. "Was there any human genetics-related biological weapons research? With Mr. Putin in power in Russia it would be (good) for the U.S. to stop ignoring the elephant and address these unanswered questions. There is now nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by doing so."