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Russian Expert: 'Strong Suspicions' of Cuban Bio Threat

Sunday, 19 May 2002 12:00 AM

Questions about Cuba's biological development program were defined recently by three separate charges.

First, an undersecretary of state announced, "The U.S believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort."

Second, a spokesman for dictator Fidel Castro dismissed the slur as "loathsome."

And finally, former President Jimmy Carter chimed in that the U.S. had no hard evidence that Cuba is sending material for terrorist weapons to other nations.

The foremost expert on the controversial subject, 1992 defector to the U.S. and author of "

Alibek notes that a bioweapons program can be masked easily by a civilian-purpose biotechnology effort.

Alibek drew a parallel with Iraq, which he says in the 1980s ran an infamous program to turn the smallpox virus into a biological weapon for the Soviets.

The Iraqis, he said, used the guise of single-cell protein production as a cover for biological weapons facilities.

Russia was set to ship large fermenting vats to Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, says Alibek.

"Fortunately, the sale was not completed. I have no doubt that these fermenters were destined for use in biological weapons production… [T]he particular fermenter size involved in this proposed sale would not be suitable for efficient single-cell protein production."

"Similarly, in 1990," Alibek says, "Biopreparat [the Soviet's key biowarfare entity] was negotiating the sale of dual-use equipment to Cuba."

But Alibek concedes that the readily transparent Iraqi ruse is a different animal from whatever is happening covertly on or under Castro's communist island.

Alibek does not have any direct knowledge that Cuba is experimenting with biological weapons, only "strong suspicions," which he first brought to light in his 1999 book. According to Alibek, his former boss, Maj. Gen. Yuri Kalinin, said he thought Cuba had an active bacteriological arms program. However, Alibek concedes, Kalinin told him he never actually saw any weapons being produced.

"There are a few small differences in producing vaccines and weapons," Alibek warns. "But the knowledge is essentially the same."

According to Alibek, Cuba has the sophisticated fermentation vats needed to manufacture both vaccines and pathogens. But as to whether the Cuban biotechnology effort is more or less a front for more sinister R & D exports, the expert wavers.

However, Alibek says, he has always been puzzled by the emphasis of Cuba's biotechnology program on drug production instead of agriculture. "It's quite interesting that a poor country has this type of expertise in biotechnology when its people are hungry."

The bare economic figures also add to Alibek's puzzlement.

Castro has injected an estimated $1 billion into biotechnology over the last 16 years. But despite the heralded development of a number of novel medicines, there has been no apparent payoff to justify the costs. Cuba's biotech industry's annual sales fluctuate only between $45 million and $125 million and rank behind prosaic seafood exports.

Yet beyond these relatively sinister facts and figures lurks the discomfiting long history of the Cuban love affair with biotechnology.

According to the Castro myth, less than a year after he led his revolutionaries out of the mountains to seize power in 1959, the 33-year-old head of state made a speech irrevocably linking Cuba's future not to tourism or tobacco – but to science.

In the 1960s, the foundations of the eccentric Castro dream were laid down in the form of a Havana research base modeled after the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Over the next two decades, thousands of bright Cuban scientists were trained to staff the base at home, in the Soviet Union, Canada, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

By the early 1980s, Castro's special preoccupation with biotechnology was fueled by interferon, then seen as an important anti-cancer agent.

The rest is history.

Castro now brags to the world that his Cuban scientists have registered 24 new medicines and vaccines, 49 generic medicines, five products for containing AIDS, and 15 novel pieces of medical equipment. Polo Cientifico, the original research base, has blossomed into a science cluster on the outskirts of Havana that boasts a small city of sleek and modern laboratories.

In April, Cuban scientists will travel to Toronto, Canada, to attend "BIO 2002," the International Biotechnology Convention & Exhibition. Sponsored by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the U.S. biotech lobbying organization, the annual convention is expected to draw some 15,000 biotech professionals.

Despite the nettlesome American embargo, the Cuban representatives will work hard at the convention pitching the virtues of doing business with the communist regime.

And the Cubans come equipped with plenty of credibility, including a history of manufacturing genetically engineered vaccines against hepatitis B and meningitis B, which Cuba ships to India and former Soviet republics and throughout Latin America.

According to Jose de la Fuente, the former director of research and development at Havana's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Cuba has also innocuously sold production technology for hepatitis B vaccine to Iran.

But, counter U.S. officials, "It's not clear what Cuba has gotten out of this relationship [with Iran]. It is clear that Iran has obtained a considerable amount of weapons technology. In many cases, Russia has used Cuba as a front for technology that Moscow cannot transfer."

Other recipients of Cuban biotechnology research include India, China, Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia, South Africa, Tunisia, Algeria, Great Britain, Venezuela and Mexico.

And if you believe Castro's line, negotiations are under way with several other nations and U.S. pharmaceutical companies that, despite all the obstacles, have professed interest in Cuba's anti-meningitis vaccine and possible clinical trials with a Cuban vaccine for lung cancer.

Other goodies in the Cuban pipeline: A medication made from mango peels that targets oxidant stress is sure to be a success on the international market.

The product, "Vimang," is claimed to be an anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic and immune system regulator, and is manufactured as a cream, tablets and flavored powder.

Years ago, the British company Smith Kline Beecham succeeded in persuading Washington to give it an exemption from the embargo, allowing it to develop and market a Cuban vaccine against the child-killing disease meningitis B.

Another British outfit, York Medical, has conducted clinical trials of Cuban cancer vaccines and antibodies. To date the company has licensed three anti-cancer therapeutic drugs, a cancer vaccine and a topical anti-fungal.

Currently, thousands of Cuban scientists laboring at 38 institutes continue to refine products for treatment of cancers of the lung, head, neck, breast and ovaries, as well as chemo-therapeutics derived from snake venom, an epidermal growth factor, and a recombinant vaccine against ticks.

Castro's ultimate propaganda message is that his country is selflessly working to provide affordable life-saving meds to an overlooked Third World still dying in droves from AIDS and even cholera.

If all this is but a covering ruse to proliferate forbidden technologies to dangerous foes, it is that much more dangerous and sinister.

Experts like Alibek, who have been to the dark side, are very skeptical of Cuba's intentions – despite all the window dressing.

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Questions about Cuba's biological development program were defined recently by three separate charges. First, an undersecretary of state announced, The U.S believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Second,...
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Sunday, 19 May 2002 12:00 AM
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