Skip to main content

Biological Threat Reduction: Opportunities and Obstacles

Back to All Publications

Ms. Harrington addressed the risk of biological proliferation in Russia and Eurasia. She outlined five sources of risk for biological proliferation: expertise, facilities, materials, unstable sociopolitical environments, and the proximity of the region to the Middle East. Regarding expertise, the thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians involved in bioresearch and development possess skills that could contribute to biological weapons programs. Dozens of research, production and design facilities still remain throughout the former Soviet Union, posing a proliferation risk. Information on the extent and location of biological materials remains sparse, even within the Russian government. Dangerous pathogen collections exist at many of these sites. Efforts have been made to locate these materials and to take initial actions to safeguard them in order to prevent illicit transfer. The unstable sociopolitical and economic environment in the region, exemplified by the current unrest in Uzbekistan, pose a danger to the security of biological institutes and materials. Finally, the facilities' proximity to the Middle East make them particularly tempting targets for biological materials theft by terrorist groups. Several unsuccessful incidents of nuclear materials transfer have been discovered, and biological materials could follow the same trafficking networks.

The U.S. has been engaged with key bioinstitutes in the region since 1994, and expanded that involvement in 1997. Several U.S. government agencies oversee programs focused on responding to the biological proliferation threat including the Departments of State, Defense, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2001, the White House review of biothreat reduction programs encouraged the expansion of these programs. Internationally, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union are all funding projects and activities related to reducing the biological threat. In particular, Canada has made a major contribution under the G-8 Global Partnership. Among non-governmental organizations, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Civilian Research and Development Foundation have implemented projects and encouraged dialogue that has sensitized policymakers and the public to the importance of the biological threat. In addition, the International Science and Technology Center now devotes 40% of their budget to funding biological institutes and research. On the Russian side, increased attention to the problem has resulted in competitive grant programs for bioresearchers in order to absorb their expertise and discourage proliferation.

Elisa D. Harris is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland.

View All Publications