The biological weapons threat to the United States is fundamentally different today than in the period during and after the completion of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. At that time, only four countries -- the Soviet Union, North Korea, Egypt, and probably Israel -- had biological weapons programs. Among those countries, the Soviet biological weapons program posed the most direct and serious threat to the security of the United States. Based on defector and other information, we now know that the Soviet program was the largest in the world, eventually employing upwards of 60,000 personnel. R&D and production of biological weapons was undertaken at secret facilities run by the Soviet military and, beginning in the 1970s, also at civilian facilities under the management of an organization known as Biopreparat. The Soviet program explored the full-spectrum of traditional biological agents, ranging from lethal agents such as anthrax, smallpox and plague to incapacitating agents such as tularemia, glanders and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. It also used genetic engineering techniques to modify traditional agents, for example by imparting antibiotic resistance, and to explore possible cocktails or combinations of agents.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the termination of this illegal biological weapons program. In the years that followed, some research and production facilities were deactivated and many others underwent severe personnel and funding cuts. Although the U.S government continues to be concerned that some elements of the former Soviet program remain, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Russia would use this residual capability deliberately against the United States.
Elisa D. Harris is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland.