Central Asia’s First Biothreat Research Lab to Play Threat-Reduction Role

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Aug. 9, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

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.

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