Film sheds light on shadowy world of germ warfare

In 2001, an attack involving letters laced with deadly anthrax bacteria killed five people in the U.S. - the incident prompted filmmaker Bob Coen to undertake an investigation of the shadowy world of biological weapons.

Bob Coen talks about Anthrax War, his new documentary on biological weapons

Filmmaker Bob Coen grew up in Zimbabwe, where anthrax killed 180 people between 1978 and 1980, during the Rhodesian War. ((T. Tongogara) )
In 2001, an attack involving several letters laced with deadly anthrax bacteria killed five people in the U.S.

The incident prompted filmmaker Bob Coen to undertake an investigation of the shadowy world of biological weapons, their deadly history and their role today as part of a growing and profitable industry.

Coen spoke to about the resulting documentary, Anthrax War. The film, which he directed and co-wrote, will have its world premier on CBC Newsworld's The Passionate Eye on Sunday, March 29.

It was the anthrax attacks after 9/11 that first got you interested in this topic?

Part of the film was shot in the U.S., including at the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground, the country's main biological weapons testing site. Coen looks on as citizen-activist Steve Erickson scans for signs of activity while cameraman Dylan Verrechia films. ((Transformer Films))
It actually goes back earlier than that. I grew up in Zimbabwe when it was still colonial Rhodesia, and I came of age at the height of that war. Years later, I was working as a journalist correspondent at CNN International … [I] got involved in covering the wars in Mozambique, Angola, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and in my research, I uncovered that biological weapons had been used in the Rhodesian War. And, in fact, the largest outbreak of anthrax in modern history took place in Rhodesia at the height of the war … Between 1978 and 1980, there were 10,000 cases of human anthrax in the country and more than 180 deaths.…

So that's where my interest began … I was aware of this clandestine use of biological weapons, …and when the anthrax attacks happened [in the U.S.], I was very curious that perhaps there was some kind of connection.…

That was what got me started on all this. It's been seven years in the making. It's taken me on a fairly convoluted trail, trying to make sense of this all and trying to get into this secret world of biological weapons research and development, something that's been going on for about 60 years now.

What has made anthrax such a popular biological weapon all this time?

Well, it's a very hardy bacterium. It has a spore so … the bacterium's encased in this shell, and it can actually survive in the environment for more than 50 years in the right conditions. And it is pretty immune to ultraviolet light because of that coating … Anthrax occurs naturally. It's endemic in many parts of the world, including Africa, Russia and even parts of the United States, but the naturally occurring anthrax and the weaponized form of the bacteria are very different. When it's weaponized, it's actually milled into this very refined powder and aerosolized so that it can be inhaled into the lungs. Once it gets into the lungs, and into the bloodstream … it's invariably fatal.…

The [anthrax in the] two letters that went to the U.S. senators was highly refined. In fact, investigators and scientists … when they examined this letter … in a high-containment lab, it floated off the slide, into the air … It had been treated, refined not only [to] small particle size but treated with additives that gave it this dispersability, also [an] electrostatic charge. So, [a] very, very sophisticated powder, and one that would require a sophisticated team of people and sophisticated equipment. It's not something that could be made in your basement.…

Bruce Ivins, whom the FBI have pinned as being the culprit, the sole person behind the anthrax attacks, was working in an army lab on vaccines. Apparently, they [the FBI] claim that he made this powder at his lab after-hours using fairly rudimentary equipment. And many scientists, experts really, said that's impossible. You could never make that sophisticated kind of anthrax with equipment that was available then.

That was probably one of your more striking findings. But there were other things you found over the course of the film that were a cause for worry.

One of the things that I found out was that this world of biological weapons research was really shrouded in secrecy, and there's all these skeletons in the closet that go back decades — human experimentation, secret programs, illicit programs. And it's not just in the United States — the U.K., Russia, my home continent of Africa — Zimbabwe, South Africa.

South Africa had a very small but very sophisticated and really quite horrific program that worked on developing a vaccine that would basically sterilize the black population without them knowing ...

The other thing I discovered was that it's actually quite a small world of scientists ... Until fairly recently, until really the [2001] anthrax attacks, there were not a lot of them, and they were all sort of connected and all had relations with each other … even enemies and former enemies all had links and would share science. For instance, some of these former scientists from the Soviet Union, that had probably the biggest biological programs in the 70s and 80s, went on to work with the British programs….

Coen said it was chilling to hear the testimony of Tatiana Mikhailovna, a survivor of a 1979 anthrax accident in Russia that killed 66 citizens. ((Transformer Films))
The other thing that's very disturbing is that since the anthrax attacks, there's been a huge proliferation in biodefence. Now, what the anthrax attacks have done is that they've rushed in this era where in the past seven years alone, the United States government has budgeted more than $50 billion US on biodefence, and a lot of that money is now going to private companies, to private foundations, to university labs … And [whereas] in the past … you had [a few] government programs working on biological weapons or biological defence, you now have hundreds and hundreds of labs and thousands of scientists working with the most deadly pathogens.

One of the scary things about biological weapons is that even if you're working on biodefence, you still have to create the actual weapon to know how to defend against it so you have a very, very blurry line between what is biodefence and what is bio-offence. And we must remember that actually … offensive biological weapons have been illegal under the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention that has been signed by more than 170 countries [in] 1972. They've been outlawed …

Behind the scenes, there's a lot of tension about this, especially with … the United States and Russia right now. In fact, Vladimir Putin, his last speech to the Duma [Russian parliament] last year in February actually warned that we were entering into a new arms race. And he singled out biological weapons … and surprisingly, it was a speech that was not well-reported and covered at all by the mainstream media. So, I think it's something to be very concerned about….

It is a scary thing because the other problem that we have is there's very little effective government oversight on this research. Nobody really knows exactly what is going on in these labs, and the reporting practices that the labs are supposed to follow, a lot of them are not [following them].

There've been U.S. government congressional reports that have basically raised … safety issues about the number of people that have got access to these very dangerous pathogens — and not only pathogens that we know about.

They are now working on new pathogens, trying to imagine, 'Well, what do you think a terrorist might do? Maybe they could combine anthrax and ebola,' which is a hemorrhagic fever, particularly nasty. 'Well, how would we defend ourselves against that? Well, I guess we'll have to see if we can combine anthrax and ebola, so we can figure out how we can defend ourselves against it…'

The film took seven years to make. How come it took so long?

It took this long to really, first of all, research it, to develop sources around the world, people who would be willing to talk to us about this, to really understand it and also to get the support and the funding necessary to do this film. It wasn't an easy film to get support for … And then once we were on it, we were following different leads that took us from to the United States, to England, to Russia, and then back to South Africa and Zimbabwe.

And one of the things that we also uncovered was that there were an alarming number of scientists who were working with germ weapons who were turning up dead in sort of mysterious circumstances …There was certainly at least half a dozen scientists whose deaths really did not make sense … the most famous of which was David Kelly, the British weapons of mass destruction expert who was at the centre of this controversy surrounding Iraq's biological weapons, the justification used for the invasion and war. Remember, he supposedly committed suicide a few months after the beginning of the Iraq war.

But we looked into the deaths of these scientists and uncovered links and connections between these guys … Certainly, all these people were privy to very, very sensitive information.

And that was dangerous for them, you think?

Certainly, I think one has to ask that question … If one looks closely at the circumstances of some of the deaths, there are a lot of unanswered questions ...

And then [when] we were in the editing room finishing this movie in August last year, 2008, this film about the unsolved anthrax attacks … the FBI basically came and said, 'We found our culprit; we've found out the guy who did it. Unfortunately, he's just committed suicide.' And again, there are a lot of troubling questions about the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins.

Why did you choose to premiere the film in Canada?

Well, it just happened that this is the way it worked out. It wasn't a choice, I think. Canada's pretty lucky that they get a first look at this film. At this point … we're having a European premiere in a couple of months in Europe, and we're still looking for a broadcaster in the United States.

What was the image in the film that stayed with you the most?

One of the things that really got me was that we traveled to this city in Russia, the former Soviet Union. It's called Yekaterinburg, and it's sort of bordering the edge of Siberia, it's in the Ural Mountains. This is an industrial city. It was primarily sort of the military city … in the Soviet Union …big, big armament manufacturer.

[In] 1979, they had the biggest biological industrial accident where anthrax escaped from a secret military lab …One gram of anthrax, a tiny little amount, floated out … across the city at night, and over the course of the next few weeks, at least 66 people were killed by this pulmonary anthrax very similar to the anthrax that was used in the 2001 attacks. We retraced that attack. We went to the cemetery to look at where the people were buried in special coffins, lead-lined coffins.

And then [we] were walking around, and there was this old woman that I ran into, and I had a feeling when I saw her approaching that she might have witnessed it. In fact, she had lived through the whole thing, and just hearing her testimony, … someone who's lived through a biological accident, and have her tell us what it was like and how the people are still living with this today — people still sick — it was really very chilling, something that stayed with me, 'cause it's something that I hope we never have to deal with anywhere else, any one of us …

And with this big proliferation that's going on — these … high-containment labs, for instance, they're about to open one in downtown Boston … right in the middle of a residential area. What if there was an accident there? It would make that Soviet accident look like nothing at all. These are troubling things.

What do you hope will come out of your film?

That germ warfare becomes part of the agenda, that people start talking about it, that as the media are looking into this, that we should start asking governments to be regulating the stuff, that there should be more oversight, more transparency. Because I believe that one of the big problems about this whole issue is that it is so secret and hidden in the shadows and so dangerous. And I think that we really need much more transparency. And … this is not an issue from the past … It's a real pressing issue in the 21st century even though it's under the radar.

Anthrax War premiers on CBC Newsworld's The Passionate Eye at 10 p.m. on Sunday, March 29.