Friday, April 18, 2014

Syria's Biological Warfare Infrastructure

“According to an unclassified U.S. Department of State report in 2005, nations suspected of continued offensive biological warfare programs in violation of the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention] include China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and possibly Cuba” (Martin et al., 2007).See:http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/biological-weapons-bioterrorism-and-vaccines 


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Most highly pathogenic agents suitable for weaponization are zoonotic, meaning they are transmissible from animal to human. From a bio-defence perspective, veterinary vaccine facilities have typically comprised a significant part of state biological weapon/warfare complex i.e. the Soviet Biopreparat program (multiple institutes and facilities), Iraq's BW program comprised of Salman Pak, Al Hakum, and Al Manal (the Foot and Mouth Disease Center), South Africa's Project Coast (Roodeplaat, Research Laboratories, Roodeplaat Breeding Enterprises, Compression Laboratory), all conducted much of their clandestine work via veterinary facilities. Generally, clandestine offensive BW programs run in parallel with a legitimate research cover and an illicit offensive research and development infrastructure. Aside from affording complimentary investigational research on zoonotic diseases, veterinary vaccine manufacturing processes are difficult, until the very end of the process, to identify as having an offensive use, essentially weaponized capability. While it is relatively easy to identify chemical weapon manufacturing plants and suspected nuclear facilities, the same does not hold true for biological weapon infrastructures. Both the Soviet Union and Iraq ran robust biological warfare programs which went under the radar for years and years.

Beyond a robust pharmaceutical industry which both Iran and Syria posses, with the later having one of the most advanced pharmaceutical industries in the Middle East prior to the outbreak of war, what constitutes a biological warfare capability? The Federation of American Scientists in their 'Introduction to Biological Weapons', see: http://www.fas.org/biosecurity/resource/bioweapons.htm provides this analysis:

"Biological weapon production can be divided into several, general stages: 1) A biological agent must first be chosen and acquired. In the case of toxins, the production method must be acquired. 2) After growing and multiplying to sufficient quantities, various selection and modification procedures can alter certain traits and characteristics of the microorganism. 3) The agent is then prepared for delivery.

Choosing an agent requires matching the desired results of an attack with an agent's characteristics. Those characteristics may include: how much of an agent can cause disease (pathogenicity); time between exposure and illness (incubation period); how debilitating the resulting disease is (virulence); its lethality; and how readily the disease spreads to others (transmissibility). Countermeasures to the disease such as treatment and vaccination are also considered.

A pathogen can be obtained from two major sources: its natural environment and a microbiology laboratory or bank. When acquired from environmental sources such as soil, water, or infected animals, enough of the microorganism would have to be obtained to allow purification and testing of its characteristics. The difficulty in acquiring agents stored in labs and banks, such as the American Type Culture Collection, depends on accessibility to the pathogens, security for the facility, or security measures for the bank's ordering process. These agents are purified and of a known quality.
An alternative to acquiring agents is creating them. Toxins can be produced by adding the DNA coding for its production to bacteria. Also, advances in biotechnology have made it possible to synthesize certain viruses based on its genome, or an organism's genetic instructions, and using basic materials such as DNA. Dr. Eckard Wimmer first demonstrated this by re-creating the poliovirus in 2001, which was followed by Dr. Craig Venter's synthesis of the bacteriophage Greek symbol phiX174 in 2003 and the 2005 re-creation of the 1918 flu virus by Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger and Dr. Terrence Tumpey.
Anthrax fermenter
Fermentation vessel used for the production of anthrax. (Source: United Kingdom Security Service MI-5)
Growing microorganisms requires providing optimal conditions. Living cells are required for the replication of viruses and some bacteria. Fungi, most bacteria, and other microorganisms can be grown in Petri dishes or fermentation vats. Although growing large amounts of an agent is possible, it can be limited by factors such as equipment, space, and safety concerns that arise from handling dangerous germs without appropriate safeguards. However, large amounts of an agent may not be necessary if the target population is small.

Modification of microorganisms through selection techniques and advances in genetic engineering could alter an agent so it will function in a particular manner. Agents modified for increased pathogenicity and a shorter incubation period could result in a more severe, fast-acting disease. Microorganisms that, under normal circumstances, do not infect potential targets could be modified to do so. Other changes could make treatments, vaccines, or the body's immune system useless.

Delivering an agent requires preparing it to remain effective when outside of its optimal growing conditions. Exposure to environmental stresses such as temperature, ultraviolet radiation, and drying can reduce the agent's activity. Some pathogens, like the anthrax bacteria, can encapsulate itself into a hardy, long-lasting spore not easily susceptible to those conditions.

Other agents require further processing that minimizes damage to it and allows it to retain its activity when dispersed. These procedures include: direct freeze drying (lyophilization); formulation into a special stabilizing solid, liquid, or gaseous solution; deep freezing; and powdering and milling. Once stabilized, the pathogens are ready for dispersal.

Many of the above manipulations require techniques and procedures that have been published in scientific literature. In addition, the equipment required for most procedures is available since legitimate researchers require them as well. This represents the "dual-use" problem, where the same knowledge and equipment used for beneficial work could also be used for more malevolent deeds."

I agree with the processes listed by FAS, the scale appears more reflective of the Soviet Biopreparat program, while Syria has sought, according to the Canada's Aerospace and Defence Weekly, Wednesday Report,  'a more agile BW program.' The Wednesday Report, and this was from their 2004 issue, so one can imagine the advances made until fighting in 2010 probably impacted this somewhat, notes the following:  

"In regard to anthrax, Syria has some ongoing experience in the industrial cultivation of germs and viruses for the civilian production of anthrax (and smallpox) vaccines. And while evidence is sketchy, Russian experts hired by Syria are reportedly engaged in cultivating a highly virulent anthrax germ for installation in missile warheads.While Syria has concentrated on anthrax and cholera germs, it has also done work on the brucella germ, establishing a biohazard facility for this pathogen as well as isolating it from sheep. Pasteurella, another bacterial pathogen related to the causative agent of bubonic plague, has also been investigated in Syria. The smallpox virus, which is considered a very reliable and effective biological weapon, last visited Syria in 1972. It is assumed that with its development and production as a biological weapon by Russia, it was secretly delivered to Syria. It is believed that production facilities for chemical weapons, in the Aleppo area and at other sites, also include wings for biological weapons. An additional facility for biological weapons has been reported in the village of Cerin, alongside facilities for the development and production of medicinal preparations. Syria has also shown great interest in dispersal methods. At the SSRC, a high capacity sampler for aerosol particles was developed that was used in fieldwork that dealt with the analysis of micronic particles. Such samplers are extremely useful in field testing biological weapons. Knowledge with operational value on dispersal techniques was also acquired in the framework of research on the packing, release, and effects of weed-controlling material in a polymer format. This technique, called micro-encapsulation packing (in tiny capsules), enables the controlled and ongoing dispersal of biological (and chemical) warfare agents under unfavorable environmental conditions. Scientists from Aleppo University and Germany worked on the project. In fact, Syria has had rudimentary biological weapons in its possession since the early 1990's. Syria together with Iran, Iraq, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, China, and Russia is currently considered to be a biological weapons possessor or developer by the United States.  The Syrian military is also beginning to plan the eventual integration of biological weapons in its tactical and strategic arsenals. In April 2000, Syrian defence minister General Mustafa Talas published a lengthy article entitled, 'Biological (Germ) Warfare: A New and Effective Method in Modern Warfare." (Interestingly, the article was published in Persian translation in Tehran, the key Muslim strategic ally of Damascus.) All indications suggest that Syria's ultimate objective is to mount biological warheads on all varieties of the long range surface to surface missiles in its possession. This is a goal that can probably be achieved within a few years, and it may already have been realized in part." See: http://www.thewednesdayreport.com/twr/syria/syria.htm


Free Syrian Army fighters walk with weapons at Tameko pharmaceutical  factory, Image: www.youtube.com

"The Syrian pharmaceutical industry emerged in the 1990's as one of the strongest in the Middle East, exporting to an estimated 52 different countries making Syria the larges supplier in the region. The market was valued at $620 million, more than $400 million of which served the local market and supplied 91 percent of the nation’s pharmaceutical needs. The remainder – which cost anywhere from 30 to 70 percent less than comparable products in neighboring markets – was exported to approximately 52 countries, making Syria the second-largest drug supplier in the region. Syria's pharmaceutical industry is heavily concentrated in Aleppo and has been decimated by fighting over the past three years. 'At least 25 Syrian pharmaceutical plants have been completely destroyed by the fighting or taken over by militias, and most of the others have been forced to suspend production due to sky rocketing costs, the difficulties of transporting, distributing, and storing pharmaceutical shipments across the country, and the inability to access raw materials, according to a representative of one international NGO operating on the ground in Syria [ ]. A handful of factories continue to operate sporadically at barely a third of their pre-crisis capacities, but overall pharmaceutical production in Syria has dropped 75% since 2010, according to the most recent Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan released by the United Nations in June. Demand for medicine has surged during the same period, and as a result, the country has experienced critical shortages of pharmaceutical products since July 2012, the SHARP report said." See: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Business/Middle-East/2013/Jul-01/222083-syria-war-wreaks-havoc-on-drug-industry.ashx#ixzz2zEhEzsX8 

Today, although war has increasingly diminished Syria's civilian bio-pharma industry, the SSRC is alive and well and protected possibly by IRGC. While it is speculated that around 70% of labs have been looted, the SSRC retains command and control over Assad's military BW sections, which form the core and remain intact. Erosion of the bio-pharmaceutical infrastructure, although likely to contribute to military programs run out of the SSRC, will have been compensated for due to the highly compartmentalized structure of Syria's BW complex. While there was some speculation that an Israeli attack on a convoy may have destroyed a section of the SSRC, notably a BW unit, there is no open source or secondary source reporting to substantiate this claim. It is likely that legitimate sections of Syria's bio-pharmaceutical industry has been heavily impacted by war but that efforts have been taken to insure the continued development of its clandestine military programs. It is highly unlikely Syria's biological weapon programs will be either destroyed through conflict or negotiated away in any kind of UN inspection (partly due to the fact that there is no verification protocol or inspection regime under the  BTWC), as has occurred with Syria's vast chemical weapon arsenal. Moreover, aspects of the pharmaceutical infrastructure which have suffered the greatest damage are not critical to military weapon programs so it is likely civilian public health infrastructures will continue to be diminished without negatively impacting Assad's BW programs. 
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