Cuba: THE THREAT
In 1982, Dr. Ernesto Bravo, from the Medical School, Universidad de La Habana, a biochemist, visited Boston University. Dr. Lynn Margulis, then at Boston University, introduced Dr.Harlyn O. Halvorson to Dr. Bravo. Dr. Bravo's real mission was to develop interactions between Cuban and United States scientists. Soon, in Summer 1983, Dr Margulis and Dr. Halvorson visited Cuba. Shortly thereafter they created an organization called North American/Cuban Scientific Exchange, known by NACSEX.
NACSEX organized visits of scientists to Cuba to exchange ideas and information. About 80 individuals were part of this program which continued in the 1980's and still is going on. These first visits led to a series of training programs. Primarily, new molecular biology technology from the United States was brought to the attention of active young Cuban scientists. Courses were given in La Habana. Advice was provided to a growing program. The Cuban medical and engineering community built a basic infrastructure in a very short period of time.
In 1985, NACSEX conducted the Second International Seminar on Biotechnology and Interferon in Cuba. Dr. Silva Rodriguez, a well known Cuban scientist, spent then 3 months at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, learning new technology related to biotechnology and genetic engineering from Dr. Robert Zimmerman, a prominent United States scientist.
At this time also, during a visit of Castro to the Soviet Union, in February 1981, Castro visited a laboratory where E.coli bacteria had been genetically altered to produce interferon. Castro's interest resulted in obtaining the help of Brezhnev, and immediately a strain of E.coli was sent to Cuba, along with the equipment and working technology.
General Vladimir Lebedinsky, from the Soviet Union, visited Cuba in 1982, at Castro's personal invitation, with a team of military scientists. They assisted then the young Cuban scientists who were engaged in the creation of what can be considered today one of the most sophisticated genetic engineering labs in the world-capable of the kind of advanced bioweapons research done in Russia, Iraq, North Korea.
Cuba's biotechnology sector has come a long way since 1981. It is the world's second-largest producer, by volume, of Alpha interferon. Cuba is also the only country, besides highly developed nations, producing a range of human and recombinant interferons on an industrial scale.
Cuba's research centers have also produced monoclonal antibodies, as well as chemically synthesized gene fragments and breakthroughs in virological research. One center, the most important one, the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, CIGB, handles the research on proteins, hormones, vaccines DNA probes, modification of enzymes, biomass, and cell genetics.
The biotechnology program has focused on the following areas:? development of genetic engineering
? origination of vaccines, biological preparations
? development of biotechnology for immunochemical applications
? production of monoclonal antibodies
? research with fetus
? medical microbiology and tropical medicine
? production of in vitro cultures
? manipulation of embryos
Cuba has had long practice in the art of deceiving outsiders, not to mention its own people. There is an official version for the general public and the outside world, one official version for the scientific community, and yet another secret series of activities known only to a small group of elite scientists and military personnel working on these centers.
Despite the country's achievements in research and development, it has made limited progress in selling its products worldwide. At a 1993 trade fair, Foreign Trade Minister Ricardo Cabrisas reported that medical products had accounted for 10% of the value of exports in 1992. But more than half of that figure corresponded to sales of a meningitis vaccine to Brazil.
A considerable proportion of the rest was sales of interferon to China. It is estimated that, since 1991, Castro has spent over $3,500 million dollars in the development of this sector. In 1998, according to Cuba's official figures, the government spent $95 million dollars in modernizing the facilities.
A report submitted by the U.S. Office of Technological Assessment to hearings at the Senate identified seventeen countries believed to possess biological weapons- Libya, North Korea, South Korea, Iraq, Taiwan, Syria, Israel, Iran, China, Egypt, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Bulgaria, India, South Afrika, and Russia.
Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology
The most important institution in Cuba's biotechnology industry is the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, CIGB. It was established in La Habana, in 1986. Located west of La Habana. 31 Ave, between158 and 190 Streets, Cubanacan.
The CIGB has the most modern and efficient technology for bioscientific research as well as facilities for manufacturing and continuous work flow. It has a total area of 60,000 square meters. The Center has state-of-the-art equipment, second only to the United States in the Americas.
At the center work outstanding scientists and engineers dedicated to genetic research, virology, cloning, with the capacity to develop bioweapons, such as anthrax, smallpox, Ebola, and others.
The main CIGB buildings cover an area of 43,200 square meters and contain specialized labs for both general purposes and dedicated research. The CIGB has a biotherium, barrier zones or white rooms, which allow research with sensitive and lethal agents. The CIGB's modern and efficient technological equipment includes mass spectrometers, infrared and ultraviolet, electron and scanning microscopes, gamma counters, DNA synthesizers. Also, and very important, downstream fermenters, drying and milling machines, centrifuges, which can, therefore guarantee research and development of bioweapons, such as bacteria and virus agents.
In the CIGB work more than 700 highly skilled researchers, scientists, and engineers. Russians scientists cooperated with the CIGB several times, including, according to certain intelligence sources, assisting in the development of altered strains of bacteria. Major General Yury Kalinin, chief of the Main Directorate, and Deputy Minister of Russia, was invited to Cuba in 1990 to discuss the creation of a new biotechnology plant ostensibly devoted to single-cell protein.
To facilitate the development of biological agents without suspicion, the CIGB has efficient, flexible, and dynamic organizations. It is structured into several large sub-directions made up, in turn, by a number of divisions with specifically oriented work lines.
The main ones are: research and development in diseases in humans; development of new vaccines by genetic engineering; recombination of enzymes; analysis, design and modeling of peptides and proteins.
The process of weaponizing anthrax, for example, can be done easily at these facilities. A few grains of freeze- dried bacteria are kept in a stoppered vial. Then, a small amount of a nutrient medium is put into the vial. A mother culture is created. With tiny pippettes, a scientist draw the mixture out of the vial and transfer a small amount into several slightly larger bottles. The bottles are left to incubate in a thermostatic oven for two days. So far, this process is very similar to the one to make a vaccine.
A seed stock in a standard vial will swell to billions of microorganisms after 48 hours, but it will take weeks to of brewing to produce the quantities required for weaponization. Once the culture emerges from the oven, it is siphoned off into large flasks. The flasks are taken into a special room where they are connected to air-bubbling machines, which turn the liquid into a light froth. The bacteria can grow now more efficiently.
Each new generation of bacteria is transferred into larger vessels, until is vacuum pressure into fermenters. These fermenters incubate the substance for two days. The bacteria continue to multiply until scientists decide they have reached maximun concentration. At this point, they process it through a centrifuge to be concentrated as much as thirty times further.
Fermenters, and centrifuges, are equipment very similar to the ones used in the dairy industry, in the sugar industry, and liquor industries. These are industries where Cuba has had experience for years. Therefore, the equipment is now manufactured in Cuba. Even at this stage, there is not a weapon. The pathogen has to be mixed with special additives to stabilize it over a long period. A scientist works with recipes. The raw ingredients are similar, but quantities and combinations of nutrient media, heat, and time vary. If something fails, the scientist has to start all over again.
Smallpox, as mentioned before, requires no concentration. Also, it is a virus, not a bacteria. Tissue cells are obtained from animals or humans. The tissue has to be kept alive outside its natural habitat in cell lines and stored at precise temperatures. Cells can be taken from the kidneys of green monkeys or from the lungs of human embryos.
The nutrient media needed to cultivate tissue cultures are different from those used to grow bacteria. A special complex of amino acids, vitamins, salts, and sera, distilled with de-ionized water, is crucial to the process that promote tissue cells and ultimately viruses to grow. The CIGB, in conjunction with other Cuban biological centers and institutes, like the Finlay Institute, or the Biocen, are quite capable of weaponizing such agents.
Commercially, the CIGB has developed a number of preparations, such as:
? Heberbiovac HB, a hepatitis B recombinant vaccine, the production of which has now been switched to a new purpose-built plant
? Heberkinasa, a recombinant streptokinase. Applied by intravenous or intra-coronary injection, it rapidly dissolves life-threatening blood clots. This product is one of 50 types of enzymes obtained in Cuba
? Hebermin, a healing and antiseptic cream containing human recombinant epidermal growth factor.
? Hebertrans, which contains human transfer factor obtained from human leukocytes. It is used to treat herpectic infections
The CIGB also has a computer network created in 1991 to provide computer communications, database access, information services and data processing to the Cuban scientific research community.
The National Bio-preparations center, Biocen, located in Bejucal, south of Habana province, at Carretera de Beltran km 1 ½ is engaged in industrial scale production of human vaccines. Also, culture media, nutritive bases and a wide range of genetic engineering products, developed at the CIGB and the Finlay Institute. It was created in 1992, at a cost of $4 million dollars.
Biocen's culture media plant has an annual 40 tons. capacity. It is equipped to carry out homogenization, hydrolisis, dehydration, milling, sifting, filtration, and several other processess required not only for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, but for bacteria and virus weaponization. A new department that manufactures recombinant products went into operation in 1993. The complex also includes a plant producing immunological reagents and two vivaria labs.
Innovative techniques have been developed at Biocen for obtaining culture media, substituting the traditional expensive nutritive bases, like meat, casein. They have developed 14 alternative protein sources. The development is vital for the creation of bioweapons.
Among Biocen's special products are allergenic extracts, dust mites, insects, atmospheric fungi. A prominent Cuban scientist, Dr. Mario Estrada has done extensive research on fish-transgenesis with the assistance of the CIGB. Most of the more lethal toxins are developed from fish and marine research.
Biocen follows the organization and functions of the Soviet Union, now Russia, mos important center, Biopreparat. Biocen can be considered the brains of the weapons program, and secrecy is vital. It supplies the scientific and engineering expertise for the projects commissioned by the military.
Staff members do not know what colleagues in other parts of the organization are doing. Yet, even the most furtive networks are made of human beings. However, gossip, rivalry, desertion, allows information of secret activities to be known.
The Finlay Institute
The Carlos J. Finlay Medical Research Institute is commercially best known for the development of the world's first effective vaccine against both meningitis B and C. It is located in Ave. 27, No. 19805, La Lisa, Habana. The Institute occupies an area of 23,000 square meters, divided into three areas: fermentation, purification, and "clean rooms". Over 950 persons work at the Institute. Of these, 60% are engineers and scientists.
The Institute has done extensive work in the research and development of new vaccines. Among them, vaccines against Leptospirosis, Hepatitis, Cholera, and Meningitis. The Plant III area is well prepared for the production of bioweapons.
The main areas of research and production of the Institute are related to bacteria and viruses. The Institute has been as important as the CIGB in the research and production of bioweapons. Commercially, it has worked on research and production of vaccines.
The Institute of Tropical Medicine
The Institute was founded in 1937 by Dr. Flori, a very well known Cuban scientist. The center's research area is in microbiology. The Institute has the necessary state-of the-art equipment for research and development of bioweapons related to tropical bacteria and viruses.
Lately, the Institute has done extensive work on the strains of viruses and cells related to parainfluenza 3, adenovirus 3, measles, and influenza type A. Hep2 two cell line was grown in minimum essential medium, MEM, containing 10% fetal calf serum, 1% glutamine, 100 U/ml penicillin and 100 mg/ml streptomycin sulfate.
Clinical specimens were processed using nasopharyngeal exudates of children who had been admitted to the William Soler Pediatric Hospital, in La Habana. An extensive scientific process was followed to evaluate the ability of the RNA-PCR method.
The Institute has also conducted extensive research on yellow fever. Yellow fever is a viral disease that has caused large epidemics in the world. Infection causes a wide spectrum of disease, from mild symptoms to severe illness and death. The yellow in the name is explained by the jaundice that affects some patients. The disease is caused by the yellow fever virus, which belongs to the flavivirus group.
The virus remains silent in the body during an incubation period of three to six days. There are two disease phases. Those patients who enter into the second phase or toxic phase develop jaundice, bleeding, kidney function deteriorates. Half of the patients in the toxic phase die within 10 days.
A weaponized yellow fever virus produces a strong strain of what is known as urban yellow fever. There is no specific treatment for yellow fever. Prevention is through vaccination. There are other tropical disease that could be used as bioweapons, such as: malaria, dracunculiasis, filariasis, leishmaniasis, dengue, dengue hemorrhagic fever.
Dengue is caused by the Dengue viruses. The disease is tropical in origin. There is no specific treatment available. Intravenous fluids and oxygen therapy are often used for patients who experience shock during their illness. Dengue is characterized by the rapid development of fever, intense headache, joint and muscle pain, and a rash.
The hemorrhagic form of dengue fever is more severe and associated with loss of appetite, vomiting, high fever. Untreated hemorrhagic dengue results in death in up to 30 percent of cases.
The Institute is probably the best in the world in research and development related to tropical diseases. The Institute is funded in many activities by UNESCO, OMS, and the French government.
The Center for Molecular Immunology is a 15,000 square meter, two floor facility. Over 250 employees work at the Center, of which, 200 are scientists and engineers. The ground floor includes development, pharmacology, and toxicology. The auxiliary technical services, and secret research and development are on the second floor. Hollow fiber, fermenters, and "cleaning in place" units are installed on this floor.
Their main research activities are on antibodies-hybridoma, molecular biology, celular immunology. CIM has laboratories equipped for cell culture, immunochemistry, and radiochemistry. Their work on the immune system is related to the development of stronger strains of virus and bacteria. The Center has all the pertinent equipment to produce bio-weapons.
There was a slippery interrelation between Soviet support to scientific programs to Cuba and Cuba's ability to develop biological weapons. For many years, the Soviet Union organized courses in genetic engineering and molecular biology for Cuban scientists. Scientists from the United States also organized courses, seminars, and other similar activities in Cuba since 1981. Many prominent European scientists have also cooperated in the development of Cuba's biotechnological industry in the last 20 years.
There has been a constant exchange of scientific information, visiting scientists, technology transfer from the Soviet Union and the United States to Cuba. The Soviet Union sold industrial fermentation equipment vessels to Cuba. The models were the ones used to develop and manufacture bacterial biological weapons.
Cuba also acquired equipment from other European countries under the excuse that the equipment was intended to grow single-cell protein for cattle feed. However, even exhaust filtration equipment capable of achieving 99.99 percent air purity was sold to Cuba. This level is used only in weapons labs.
Cuba has also acquired the technology and the capacity to manufacture their own equipment. Some of the equipment required are very similar to equipment related to diary production, sugar cane processing, and liquor manufacturing, areas where Cuba has had great experience.
There is a definitive and important relation with Iran in the field of biotechnology. Luis Herrera, one of the founders of the CIGB and the biotechnology program in Cuba is directing the Iran/Cuba activities. Part of the agreement calls for Cuba providing equipment and technology transfer to Iran.
Some analysts maintain that evidence of biological warfare research is not proof that viable weapons are being produced. However, even the most primitive biological weapons lab can produce enough of an agent to cripple a major city. Certainly, Cuba's facilities are recognized as outstanding.
Viruses and bacteria can be obtained from more than two thousand microbe banks around the world. The international scientific community depends on this network for medical research and for exchange of information vital to the fight against disease. There are very few restrictions on the cross-border trade in pathogens.
In the past twenty years Cuba has been working in the research and development of biotechnological products. Research has proven that viruses and toxins can be genetically altered to heighten their lethality, paving the way for the development of pathogens capable of overcoming existing vaccines.
The arsenal of Cuba could include weapons based on tularemia, anthrax, epidemic typhus, smallpox, dengue fever, Marburg, Ebola. It could also extend to neurological agents, based on chemical substances produced naturally in the human body. It is easier to make a biological weapon than to create an effective system of biological defense.
The United States plan to stockpile and develop vaccines against known agents is the most comprehensive of its kind in the world. Vaccines work by inducing the creation of antibodies that fight specific diseases. It is not medically advisable to combine too many different courses of vaccination. There are currently no known vaccines for brucellosis, glanders, and melioidosis, or for many viral diseases, such as Ebola and Marburg.
Vaccines provide excellent protection against specific diseases, but the characteristics that makes them so effective is also the source of their limitations. Smallpox antibodies offer no protection against plague. Combined vaccines are possible, but most of these go straight to the metabolism of specific organisms. An all purpose antidote simply does not exist.
Countries with the capacity and technology to produce sophisticated vaccines can certainly produce bioweapons. Cuba's biotechnology efforts have been very successful in the creation of vaccines.
In 1957, European scientists identified the first cytokine, named interferon, which form a bridge between specific and nonspecific immune systems. They are produced in response to viruses and bacteria, or to a general stimulus in the blood. Interferon took years to isolate, but in 1979 an American produced interferon alpha artificially, called antiviral penicillin, a sophisticated biotechnological achievement. Cuba is a large producer of interferon.
Cuba's biotechnological capacity places it in group four of the World Health Organization's five national categories. To reach group five, which contains the seven top industrial economies, Cuba must produce at least 20% of the 260 basic materials. It regularly produces 17% of these and certainly has the scientific ability to produce the others with biotech methods.
Priority access to research and development funding, 160 distinct research units and over 10,000 researchers give the Cuban scientific establishment an edge over their counterparts even, in some Western countries.
Research is ongoing in medicine, genetic engineering, biotechnology, industrial applications, and bioweapons. Development of hardware and software for the research effort has been also a priority.
The range of products, and research and development areas, include:monoclonal antibodies, vaccines against hepatitis B and bacterial meningitis, a neural growth factor, a range of interferons, enzymes, streptokinase, culture media with 14 alternative protein sources, several reagents, transgenetic fish, interferon beta, proteolytic peptides, lipopolysaccharide peptides, LBP-derived synthetic peptides, human Papillomavirus 16, MT-4 cells, and many others.
Certainly, a country with such capacity can produce bioweapons. There is really no technical solution to the problem of bioweapons in Cuba. It would need an ethical, human, and moral solution, which is obviously impossible while the government is in the hands of a sociopath. Ordinary intelligence and surveillance techniques cannot prove the existence of a biological warfare program.
Even the highest resolution satellite imagery can't distinguish between a large pharmaceutical plant or center and a weapons complex. The only conclusive evidence comes from first hand information. A site inspection of Cuba's facilities, by an objective international team must be requested.
Este y otros excelentes artículos del mismo autor MANUEL CEREIJO aparecen en la REVISTA GUARACABUYA con dirección electrónica de: http://www.amigospais-guaracabuya.org