On the same day that authorities confirmed that a woman in New York had developed skin anthrax after touching a suspicious envelope, a major US television network reported that US Defense Department inspectors found anthrax at a former Soviet research facility in Kazakhstan.
The CNN network said October 12 that some members of the Defense Department team are being treated with medication following possible exposure to anthrax. But at least one expert on biological weapons is downplaying the possibility of a connection between the Kazakhstan revelation and the New York case of anthrax.
"If you go around taking swabs [of that Kazakhstani facility, or any other production facility], you're likely to get some" anthrax, says Milton Leitenberg, a biological weapons expert and senior research scholar at the University of Maryland. No evidence has been produced of any connection between the New York case and a Florida case in which one person died and two colleagues tested positive for exposure to the disease.
The United States has been monitoring Kazakhstan and other places where anthrax and other germ weapons exist, he says, so it would be odd to "find" the disease lying around all of a sudden. "We've been paying tens of millions of dollars a year for four or five years [through the Defense Department] to get secure perimeters and locks and cold rooms; we have very good entrée into Kazakhstan in particular."
Large quantities of anthrax were stored in Central Asia during the Soviet era. A June 2000 story in the Washington Post reported that Kazakhstan served as a testing ground for foot-and-mouth and swine fever disease dissemination during the Cold War. The United States has been dismantling a facility near Stepnogorsk in central Kazakhstan for several years. The Kazakhstani government is now trying to develop the town of Stepnogorsk as a biotech center, according to a July 23 Interfax report.
Some experts say it is technically possible for an individual to smuggle anthrax out of known facilities in Kazakhstan and bring it to the United States. However, experts stress that such a scenario is extremely unlikely. But in a country such as Kazakhstan, which has struggled to recover from the economic crash precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, one cannot rule out foul play. "If you pay the [lab] director $50,000, that makes [the disease] easy to smuggle," Leitenberg says.
Nevertheless, other factors work against a Kazakhstan link to the New York case. Anthrax can travel by mail in dry powder, Leitenberg says, but he doubts it exists in Kazakhstani labs in anything but frozen form. "Do I tie [the New York and Florida cases] to Kazakhstan?" Leitenberg says. "Absolutely not."
Alec Appelbaum is a contributing editor to EurasiaNet.