SEMEY, Kazakhstan — A state-of-the-art medical research laboratory is under construction in a suburb of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s business capital, using U.S. funds aimed at helping reorient former biological weapons-related research under the Soviet Union to peaceful public health uses, according to officials involved with the project.
When it opens in 2015, the Central Reference Laboratory is expected to focus on some of the world’s most dangerous emerging pathogens with support from the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, drawing off of years of U.S. and Kazakhstani joint cooperation.
“We’re going to have here the most up-to-date equipment,” said B.B. Atshabar, director of the Kazakhstan Scientific Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases, speaking through a translator to a group of U.S. journalists who visited the construction site of the new laboratory on Tuesday.
Once finished, the planned 87,000 square-foot laboratory is slated to be the first of its kind in Central Asia to include research areas that meet internationally recognized Biosafety Level-3 standards, which involve special engineering, design and staff-training protocols intended to minimize the risks of working with potentially deadly disease agents, such as anthrax and plague. Yet more of the lab space, though, will be devoted to Biosafety Level-2 work involving the study of pathogens that pose moderate health hazards.
“The ultimate goal of the laboratory will be its international accreditation,” Atshabar said. “The results that will be achieved in this laboratory will be open to all of the world” to utilize, he said.
The focus of work at the future facility will be on developing improved diagnostic tools and countermeasures for pathogens that affect both humans and animals. The laboratory is also expected to aid neighboring Central Asian states in diagnosing and controlling the spread of new disease strains, he said.
Anthrax and plague are endemic to Kazakhstan and have been public health concerns here for some time. Kazakhstani scientists have developed considerable expertise into these pathogens but their research up until now has taken place in local laboratories that lack the internationally recognized BSL-3 standards, according to Atshabar.
Under the Soviet Union, “there wasn’t really a notion of peer-reviewed science or transparency at all. Most of what they did was very tightly classified and they had a lot of overlap with the military,” said Phil Starling, the program director for science engagement at CRDF Global, a nonprofit that works on Cooperative Threat Reduction programs in Kazakhstan and elsewhere under contract with the U.S. government. Standard practice at that time was for scientists in Kazakhstan identifying new strains of plague, for example, to send samples back to Moscow where they would be examined and studied specifically for potential application as biological weapons, he said.
Kazakhstan became an independent nation in December 1991, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Through the CTR program, the United States has worked to steer Kazakhstani scientists with a background in diseases such as plague and anthrax to nonmilitary research that is transparent and published under the principles of global science, said Starling. He was interviewed by phone in the United States late last month.
“A big part of the reorientation was introducing [Kazakhstani scientists] to the principles of western [global] science,” he said. “You get funding based on the rigor of your research and the validity of your research, not necessarily other political priorities,” he said.
Another aspect of CTR work in Kazakhstan is finding employment for those scientists with backgrounds in biological-weapon related research, so that they will not be tempted to sell their expertise to terrorists or rogue nations.
“We’ve done our best to employ these people who have this knowledge. It’s one of these challenges that you cannot erase this knowledge from someone’s mind,” said Lt. Col. Charles Carlton, director of the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Office in Kazakhstan.
“I do think that through our efforts, through U.S. funding, Kazakhstani funding, we are doing our best to employ these people,” he said on Tuesday to reporters on a trip organized by the International Reporting Project.
Funding for the $100 million construction of the Central Reference Laboratory is coming entirely from the United States. Once it is up and running, Washington each year will gradually reduce the amount of funds it provides to Kazakhstan to operate the scientific facility, until the government in Astana is fully underwriting the laboratory, Carlton said.
The CRL facility will contain 5,400 square feet of BSL-3 research space, according to Dan Erbach, the site construction manager for AECOM, the company building the facility.
The U.S. government is also providing approximately $5.6 million to build a separate site featuring BSL-3 laboratory space in the village of Otar in Kazakhstan’s Zhambylskaya region. The facility is intended to provide an early warning of any new disease outbreaks that occur in the region and is intended to complement rather than duplicate the work done at the Central Reference Laboratory in Almaty, Carlton said. The Otar facility is expected to be completed next April.