To Fight Plague, Look to Russia's Past

A century before Ebola, SARS, or avian flu began making head-lines, another invisible killer was carving a swath of death and fear across the Russian Empire: the plague.

By | October 10, 2005


Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies

A century before Ebola, SARS, or avian flu began making headlines, another invisible killer was carving a swath of death and fear across the Russian Empire: the plague. And even in an age that predated PCR and even Watson and Crick, the remarkable way the tsarist government set out to fight what was then an unknown organism could be a model for today's preventive strategies. "I thought I was being so creative for the last five years [by] suggesting that we look for zoonotic diseases independent of species bias," says veterinary pathologist Tracey McNamara, whose work on sick crows in 1999 helped lead to the identification of West Nile virus. "[The Russians] tried to detect disease threats before they spilled over into the human population."

The Imperial Anti-Plague (AP) Program began operations in 1890 – four years before the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, was identified – and grew by the eve of the Russian Revolution to include 11 laboratories. The link between sick rodents and human outbreaks was well known, so the Russians, with several plague-endemic areas in the Caucasus and Central Asia, moved to attack the enemy right in its animal-host burrows. "Thanks to the system, natural carriers were limited to their region. They didn't bring disease to new areas," notes Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, a senior project manager for the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, which is producing a report on the AP system.

During the three years of the Russian civil war ending in 1921, almost all the Imperial AP labs were closed. But even in 1918, the Soviets realized the importance of the AP effort and created the Regional Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology at Saratov University Medical School. The Institute was soon spun off as an independent agency known by its shorthand name: Mikrob. By 1922, the AP system's Soviet era was well established, with Mikrob in charge of five labs stretching from the Urals to Kazakhstan. Field biologists, especially in the early days, were a hardy lot, often traveling by horseback, camel, and even the occasional cow. They camped in the open, dangerously near their infectious quarry, and deaths from accidental exposure were not unheard of.

As the AP network grew throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the emphasis shifted to prevention and expanded to include other zoonotic infections such as tularemia, anthrax, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, cholera, malaria, and brucellosis. During months-long field campaigns, scientists collected thousands of blood samples and combed countless rodents for ectoparasites. Meanwhile researchers at the Institutes developed diagnostic tests, human vaccines, and animal poisons, and studied the mechanics of transmission.


Such detailed knowledge had obvious value for the Soviets' burgeoning bioweapons program. By the 1960s, AP scientists began working on "Problem 5," creating vaccines and antidotes for use in case of attack. By the 1970s, bioweapons themselves were being perfected under a secret program code-named "Ferment." The now dual – purpose nature of the AP program meant more funding, higher pay, and better benefits, making AP work a plum assignment. At its zenith during the 1970s, the AP program employed 7,000 scientists, operating through a network of six institutes, 100 regional and field stations, and dozens of temporary seasonal facilities. Researchers regularly monitored scores of natural disease foci across an area in excess of a half billion acres.

But scientists found their hands tied when it came to publishing, whether it was research on bioweapons, or diseases the Stalinist government had managed to eradicate by decree, including plague and cholera. Any inconvenient evidence to the contrary presented its own health risk. To hide any mention of politically troublesome diseases, the Statistics Directorate developed code numbers for illnesses and the forms used to report them. Cholera, for example, became "129" on form "29."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the once-unified AP network found itself spread across several newly minted countries, and short on funds. Payrolls were cut on average by 40%. Many scientists either returned to their new native lands such as the Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan, found new jobs, or retired. Among the collateral damage: a gold mine of epidemiologic data dating as far back as the 1930s, now gathering dust and locked away, much of it in computers as obsolete as the USSR. Ironically, many research stations have now themselves become dangerous disease foci since budgets were slashed for the regular transfer of field-collected pathogens – many highly virulent – to more secure regional institutes.

"There is a lot of expertise in dealing with dangerous diseases, which is useful not only for public health purposes, but also to fight terrorism and the use of bioweapons," says Ouagrham-Gormley. "If you have an epidemic in Central Asia or the Caucasus and it's not taken care of, it can easily go towards Europe. It's an international health problem."

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