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Russia: U.S. Scientists To Collaborate In Anti-Germ Campaign

Washington, 18 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. National Academy of Sciences says germ warfare experts from the former Soviet Union could provide invaluable help in combating infectious diseases.

The Academy is recommending that the U.S. Defense Department fund a five-year program to engage specialists from the former Soviet Union's biological weapons complex in research on highly infectious diseases.

In a new report, the Academy says the proposed program could serve important U.S. national security and public health goals.

The recommended program is called the "Pathogens Initiative." Pathogens are disease-bearing agents. The Academy says the program would support research projects at Russian institutes on the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and epidemiology -- which is the study of the causes and control of disease outbreaks -- of highly infectious diseases.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private institution created in the 19th Century by the federal government to be an adviser on scientific and technological matters. It produces reports and studies for government agencies and the U.S. Congress.

According to the proposal, the Russian specialists would collaborate with scientists from the U.S. government and private and academic laboratories. The Academy says the program would cost about $38.5 million over five years.

The chairman of the committee that prepared the Academy proposal, Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller University in New York, says bilateral cooperation would serve two purposes.

He says the research on dangerous pathogens, "not only is important in combating diseases that are spreading rapidly throughout the world, but also would reduce the possibility that Russian scientists faced with serious economic problems might develop connections with parties interested in using their knowledge for hostile purposes."

Lederberg says the Academy recognizes the danger that the research itself on highly infectious diseases also could be used to develop biological weapons. He said the, "risk is genuine." But, he also says that if the joint projects are carefully controlled and monitored, "the risk of abusing the research would be low, while the benefits for national security, public health and science could be substantial."

The Academy says the joint program also represents an opportunity for both Russia and the United States to reach mutual public health goals. By combining their expertise, the Academy says, researchers could improve understanding of the microbiology and epidemiology of dangerous pathogens.

The Academy says collaboration would also strengthen the ability to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious diseases, and it would also improve international surveillance of global infectious disease trends and outbreaks.

The U.S. Defense Department asked the Academy to conduct the study on collaboration. The Academy and the Defense Department are already conducting several test projects with Russian scientists working in the area of infectious diseases.