Skip to content
  • 8 min read

Pentagon Unit A1266 studies bioterrorism agents in Kazakhstan

Source: Arms Watch by Dilyana Gaytandzhieva

American military scientists from the US Navy Medical Research Center, Silver Spring, Maryland have studied bioterrorism agents in Pentagon biolaboratories in Kazakhstan, scientific papers reveal.

The Pentagon Unit A1266 along with local scientists have collected 40,000 ticks from 13 regions in Kazakhstan and isolated four bio-agents that pose a serious bioterrorism threat: Tick-Borne Encephalitis Virus (TBEV), Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever Virus (CCHFV), Rickettsia and Coxiella burnetii (the causative agent of Q fever). These bio-agents have the potential to be engineered for mass aerosol dissemination and used as bioweapons.

Forskere fra det centrale referencelaboratorium (CRL) i Almaty, tager feltprøver i Kasakhstan (Facebook @CRLALMATY)

The Pentagon program on ticks and tick-borne diseases in Kazakhstan started a decade ago, according to the study published by the US National Library of Medicine in 2016. “We have substantial new data on a serious tick-borne disease in Central Asia, of importance both to local and global public health authorities, as well as the US DoD”, the researchers claim. All bio-agents which have been discovered in infected ticks in Kazakhstan under the DoD program had been studied as potential bioweapons in the past.

Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF)

Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF) virus causes a severe and frequently fatal hemorrhagic disease in people, with a mortality rate of approximately 30% and no approved vaccine available. CCHF virus is recognized as a possible agent of bioterrorism. In Iraq, it was studied as a potential biological weapon, and the virus has also been shown to be potentially disseminated via aerosolisation.

Tick-Borne Encephalitis Virus (TBEV)

TBEV is classified by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) as a category C bioterror agent and has the potential to be engineered for mass dissemination, with resulting high morbidity and mortality.

Rickettsial Diseases and Q Fever

Rickettsia prowazekii and Coxiella burnetii, the causative agents of typhus and Q fever, respectively, had been weaponized and field-tested by the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union in the past. Because of their unique biological characteristics, such as environmental stability, small size, aerosol transmission, persistence in infected hosts, low infectious dose, and high associated morbidity and mortality, Rickettsia prowazekii and Coxiella burnetii could be weaponized. These biological attributes would make the pathogenic rickettsiae desirable bioterrorism agents.

The Pentagon Unit A1266 has also studied Rickettsia in infected fleas collected in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Biologer i beskyttelsesudstyr ved Central Reference Laboratory (CRL) i Alamty, Kasakhstan (Facebook @CRLALMATY)

Coronavirus Research

Another Pentagon project studied coronaviruses in bats (2015 – 2018). A total of 200 bat guano samples were collected from three caves in Kazakhstan. Overall, 25 (12.5%) of all guano samples screened were positive for coronaviruses. This study was funded by the US DoD Defense Threat Reduction Agency Cooperative Biological Research project KZ-33: MERS Coronaviruses: Surveillance and detection in Kazakhstan.

Det amerikanske forsvarsministerium Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) projekter i Kasakhstan (kilde: en case historie i Cooperative Biologisk Forskning: Compendium of Studier og Programmet analyserer i Kasakhstan)
Laboratoriekaniner i bur på det Pentagon-finansierede Central Reference Laboratory (CRL) i Almaty, Kasakhstan (Facebook @CRLALMATY)

US Air Force transported deadly plague samples from Kazakhstan

Plague is one of the priority Pentagon projects in Kazakhstan as well as anthrax and tularemia. It is currently considered to be one of the most serious bioterrorism threats. Y. pestis (the bacteria which causes the disease plague) was developed as an aerosol weapon by several countries in the past.

“Earlier this month a team of American scientists working under the Nunn-Lugar Program quietly entered Kazakhstan in sub-zero temperatures to begin the careful packaging of bubonic and pneumonic plague samples. The samples have been safely transported on a US Air Force C-17 cargo plane to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colorado”, according to Senator Richard Lugar in a speech before US Senate in January 2008. The hazardous cargo was part of a Soviet-era collection of especially dangerous pathogens. The plague samples were shipped to the US for research after 5 years of negotiations with Kazakhstan.

Et Amerikansk Air Force C-17 transporterede ”roligt” pest prøver fra Kasakhstan til USA (foto kredit: USA Air Force)
Pest kaldes også “den sorte død”, fordi den kan forårsage hudsår, der danner sorte skorper (Kilde: CDC, Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases, Fort Collins, Colorado)

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) a dissemination of 50 kg of Y. pestis in an aerosol cloud over a city of 5 million might result in 150,000 cases of pneumonic plague. Of those, 80,000 to 100,000 cases would require hospitalization, and 36,000 victims would be expected to die. A plague epidemic in the 14th century killed more than one-third of the population of Europe within a few years. In some cities, up to 75% of the population died within days.

“With Russia to the north and Iran and Afghanistan to the south, energy-rich Central Asia is at the front line of American national security priorities”, according to Senator Lugar (2008 Congressional Record—Senate, Vol. 154, Pt. 1). This “quiet” US military operation in Kazakhstan marked the beginning of a decade-long biological research program on deadly diseases close to the borders of the US main rivals – Russia and China.

Kazakhstan grænser op til USAs hovedrivaler: Rusland og Kina.

Plague outbreaks are rare nowadays. However, health officials in China confirmed a bubonic plague outbreak last week in the Inner Mongolia district, triggering increased prevention measures throughout the region, according to the Bayannur city health commission.

Two other cases were also reported last week in Mongolia. Russian health officials in Siberia have begun testing rodents for bubonic plague after several cases were registered in neighboring Mongolia and China.

$300 million for biolabs in Kazakhstan

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has spent almost $300 million on two Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) laboratories in Kazakhstan since 2009: the Central Reference Laboratory in Almaty (also known as Kazakh Scientific Center of Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases (KSCQZD), and the Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems (RIBSP) in Otar, documents from the US Federal contracts registry reveal.

DTRA has outsourced much of the work to private US contractors. AECOM Government Services has been awarded a $240.4 million contract for the construction of the two BSL 3 laboratories (2009-2016). Another American company CH2M Hill has received two federal contract awards: a $38.4 million contract for scientific services (20 August 2015 – 31 August 2020) and a further $17.2 million for engineering and equipment delivery (31 January 2020 – 2 February 2023).

Det centrale referencelaboratorium (CRL) på 86111 kvadratfod i Almaty, Kasakhstan (Facebook @CRLALMATY)
DTRA-direktør Ken Meyers (centrum) hjælper med at skære båndet, der betyder åbningen af 7.535 kvadratmeter Bio-Sikkerhedsniveau 3 anlægget i Otar, Kasakhstan i 2014 (foto: US Army Corps of Engineers)

These US facilities in Kazakhstan are just two of the many Pentagon biolaboratories in 25 countries across the world. They are funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) under a $ 2.1 billion military program – Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP), and are located in former Soviet Union countries such as Kazakhstan, Georgia and Ukraine, the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa.

The Bio-Safety Level 3 laboratories are accessible only to US citizens with security clearance.

The need to be a US citizen and have appropriate security clearance raises questions as to what work has been performed in these biolaboratories and why it has been classified.

Armswatch / Dilyana Gaytandzhieva