Although the Soviet program dates back to the 1920's, their acquisition of India 1 is of special interest today as we consider how states such as Syria and the DPRK build their biological warfare programs.
Smallpox is believed to have emerged in human populations about 10,000 BC. Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300-500 million deaths during the 20th century alone more than all wars combined. As recently as 1967, the WHO estimated 15 million people contracted the disease and two million of those died that year. See:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smallpox#cite_note-Barquet
Smallpox is caused by infection with variola virus, which belongs to the genus orthopoxvirus, the family poxviridae and subfamily chordopoxiridae. In 1947, the Soviets established a smallpox weapon production facility in Zagorsk, 75 km from Moscow. In 1971, after an open air field test of weaponized (aerosolized) smallpox believed to be based on the India 1 strain at a military testing ground on the Aral Sea, an outbreak occurred. General Prof. Peter Burgasov, former Chief Sanitary Physician of the Soviet Army and a senior researcher within the Soviet program of biological warfare, described the incident:
Ken Alibek, as he is known publicly was Chief Scientist at Biopreparat from 1987 to 1992. He contends:On Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea, the strongest recipes of smallpox were tested. Suddenly I was informed that there were mysterious cases of moralities in Aralsk. A research ship of the Aral fleet came to within 15 km of the island (it was forbidden to come any closer than 40 km). The lab technician of this ship took samples of plankton twice a day from the top deck. The smallpox formulation—400 gr. of which was exploded on the island—"got her" and she became infected. After returning home to Aralsk, she infected several people including children. All of them died. I suspected the reason for this and called the Chief of General Staff of Ministry of Defense and requested to forbid the stop of the Alma-Ata—Moscow train in Aralsk. As a result, the epidemic around the country was prevented. I called Andropov, who at that time was Chief of KGB, and informed him of the exclusive recipe of smallpox obtained on Vozrazhdenie Island. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smallpox#cite_note-Barquet-4
"The Russians themselves had proposed the global eradication program back in 1958. They had pledged to provide 25 million doses of vaccine every year to the program. If we hadn't had that amount of vaccine we could never have succeeded.' Alibek further contends that the Kremlin had a clear understanding that if smallpox was eradicated, and vaccination ended, the virus had the potential to be the most powerful and effective weapon ever created to eliminate human life. According to Alibek, one particularly virulent strain India 67 or India 1, was chosen by the Russians to be weaponized. They perfected techniques for mass producing smallpox and maintained a rolling annual stockpile of hundreds of tonnes. They also developed ways to disseminate the virus in aerial bombs and ballistic missile warheads. Additional work was done to enhance the virulence of the virus and to combine it with other viruses." See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/pox_weapon_01.shtml
But how did the Soviet's actually acquire their India 1 strain? For the most part this has been speculative. Raymond Zilinskas, Milton Leitenberg and Jens Kuhn in their impressive work entitled: The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: a History, note three possible sources: 1. That they could have acquired it from a 1959 smallpox outbreak in Moscow, result of an Indian passenger, the index case who arrived on a plane from New Delhi. 2. The Institute for Viral Preperations in Moscow which was a WHO reference center may have received it as part of a normal exchange as it was common practice for laboratories to exchange culture collections; or 3. When it was confirmed that the Indian passenger had smallpox, Zagorsk sent a scientific team to Moscow. They collected blood samples and took it back to their institute and weaponized it over the course of eight years.
Follow-up blogs will consider how Iran and Syria may have collected their variola strains and what efforts might be undertaken to prevent further proliferation.