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Selling the threat of bioterrorism

A scientist defected, warned of epidemics, helped shape policy and sought to profit.

July 01, 2007|David Willman | Times Staff Writer

"This is a theory that, I must say, does not hold up at all, and it does not make any sense from a biologic point of view," said Dr. Donald A. Henderson, a former White House science advisor whose work with the World Health Organization is credited with eradicating smallpox outbreaks globally. "This idea ... was straight off the wall. I would put no credence in it at all."

Alibek said that it was not his decision alone to issue the September 2003 news release. He ascribed others' criticisms to professional jealousies.

Apart from the university or his company, Alibek has used his ties with the government to promote "Dr. Ken Alibek's Immune System Support Formula," nonprescription pills sold over the Internet. Advertisements for the product described Alibek as a biological and medical expert who had "testified before Congressional committees and is a frequent consultant to the U.S. government."

Alibek acknowledged that he did "consulting work" for a dietary supplement company that distributed the product in his name, but said that he was not paid for subsequent sales. However, an aide to the chief executive of the company, Vital Basics Inc., said that Alibek was paid.

More recently, Alibek's warnings of bioterrorist threats echoed in the debate surrounding "Project Bioshield," signed into law by Bush in July 2004. The program, with an initial budget of about $5.6 billion, aims to encourage companies to develop vaccines or other products that could counter a biological or chemical attack.

And, as Alibek has warned Congress that enemies of the U.S. have sought genetically altered biological agents to resist antibiotics or vaccines, he has promoted products that would address those very threats:

In 2004, a San Diego company, Aethlon Medical Inc., signed Alibek to its advisory board and issued a report, co-written by Alibek, which said its product for filtering toxins from blood "could be rapidly deployed even against genetically altered biowarfare agents."

Alibek's report emphasized the availability of federal funds, including from Project Bioshield. Aethlon said that Alibek served without pay on the advisory board but "may be compensated for future consulting work."

Alibek also hopes to tap into Project Bioshield with his own company.

He said that he expected to submit a proposal to sell what could be millions of dollars of medicines to the government for use in the event of a terrorist attack or other emergency. As envisioned by Alibek, his drug facility in the Ukraine would produce generic versions of antiviral agents or antibiotics at a cost "three, four, five times lower" than if they were made in the U.S.

Meanwhile, within the last year an internal controversy flared regarding Alibek's leadership of the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, a fledgling graduate program at George Mason. Alibek resigned as a tenured and distinguished professor there last Aug. 31.

University spokeswoman Christine LaPaille confirmed the resignation and said that George Mason was no longer collaborating with Alibek's company on research backed by any of the recent federal grants or contracts. LaPaille declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Alibek's departure.

Alibek said the college administration had grown displeased with his company's role in sharing grant-funded research. The university, he said, requested that he dismantle or leave AFG Biosolutions. He chose to resign from George Mason.

This spring, Alibek traveled to the Ukrainian city of Kiev to push his plans for the drug-manufacturing plant and for a center for cancer and cardiac care. He did so after making comments, reported by the Russian news agency Interfax, which struck some officials in Washington as inconsistent with his previous dramatic claims:

Since 1992, Alibek has told U.S. intelligence agencies, and later general audiences, that Russia had persisted in developing biological weapons. For instance, in his memoir, "Biohazard," subtitled, "The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World -- Told From Inside by the Man Who Ran It," Alibek wrote in 1999:

"I am convinced that a large portion of the Soviet Union's offensive program remains viable despite [then-President Boris N.] Yeltsin's ban on research and testing."

And in a September 2000 interview with an online publication sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Alibek said:

"Russia is still retaining its biological weapons capability, specifically at the Ministry of Defense. The Ministry of Defense is maintaining four major research and production sites, which are still active."

But as reported by Interfax, Alibek in November 2005 told a different story in his ancestral hometown of Almaty: As of the early 1990s, Alibek said, the Russians had stopped "all work to develop biological weapons."

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