By WILLIAM J. BROAD and JUDITH MILLER
The most senior defector from the Soviet germ-warfare program says in a new book that Soviet officials concluded that China had suffered a serious accident at one of its secret plants for developing biological weapons, causing two major epidemics.
The book also reports that Soviet researchers tried to turn HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, into a weapon and that even as the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, pursued peace openings with the West, he ordered a vast expansion of the deadly effort to turn germs and viruses into weapons of mass destruction.
The defector, Kanatjan Alibekov, now known as Ken Alibek, says in the book that as deputy director of a top branch of the Soviet program, he knew of the disaster in China because he saw secret Soviet intelligence reports twice a month.
Spy satellites peering down at China found what seemed to be a large biological-weapons laboratory and plant near a remote site for testing nuclear warheads, he wrote. Intelligence agents then found evidence that two epidemics of hemorrhagic fever swept the region in the late 1980s. The area had never previously known such diseases, which cause profuse bleeding and death.
"Our analysts," Alibek said, "concluded that they were caused by an accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponizing viral diseases." Viral scourges that cause intense bleeding include Marburg fever and the dreaded Ebola virus. Both are endemic to Africa.
China has signed a 1972 treaty banning biological weapons. During World War II it became one of the few modern countries to experience their horrors when Japanese attackers sowed epidemics there, killing thousands of Chinese.
U.S. intelligence agencies have long suspected that China harbors a biological-weapons program. Early in 1993, shortly after Alibek fled to the United States, the outgoing Bush administration accused Beijing of having an active germ-warfare effort, which it has denied. The United States unilaterally ended its own germ-weapons program in 1969.
Last week, the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not return several telephone calls seeking comment, and an American expert who tracks germ intelligence said he did not know of any such epidemics in China.
The allegation is one of several in Alibek's new book, "Biohazard," which was written with a journalist, Stephen Handelman, and is being published by Random House this week. It was made available to The New York Times in advance.
U.S. intelligence officials who know what Alibek said in secret debriefings after his defection in 1992 give his new account considerable credence. They have called him highly believable about the subjects he knows firsthand, like the Soviet biological-weapons program from 1975 to 1992, when he served as one of Moscow's top germ warriors. He is less reliable, they say, on political and military issues that he knows secondhand.
The book asserts that Gorbachev, in his "characteristic scrawl," signed a five-year plan for 1985 to 1990 that ordered the most ambitious effort ever for the development of deadly germs and viruses, including smallpox, as weapons. In 1980, world health authorities declared the ancient scourge eradicated from all human populations.
"Gorbachev's Five-Year Plan -- and his generous funding, which would amount to over $1 billion by the end of the decade -- allowed us to catch up" with the American biological weapons program, which was making great strides, Alibek writes.
In 1988, as Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reform campaigns were in full swing and the Russians and Americans were negotiating new arms-control treaties, officials "at the highest levels," Alibek said, ordered the arming of giant SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago with anthrax and other deadly germs.
The secret move came as Soviet leaders publicly waged a peace offensive. In his book "Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World" (Harper & Row, 1987), Gorbachev argued that for decades Western experts had falsely accused Moscow of weapon horrors and that the real engine of the arms race was the United States.
Contacted through his office in Moscow, Gorbachev sidestepped Alibek's charges and questions about the germ program. His spokesman said that Gorbachev did not know Alibek, and that there was "no sense in getting involved in an endless process of commenting."
William C. Patrick III, a key figure in the United States' former germ-warfare program who helped debrief Alibek after his defection in 1992, said many of the book's assertions were consistent with what Alibek had told U.S. officials in secret sessions at the time. He called the information Alibek had provided "critical" to Washington's understanding of the Soviet program.
"He laid it all out for the first time," Patrick said.
Among the book's new disclosures are:
-- Moscow mastered the art of rearranging genes to make harmful microbes even more potent and harder to counteract. Anthrax, a top biological warfare agent that causes high fever and death, was genetically altered, he says, to resist five kinds of antibiotics.
-- The top-secret program obtained a sample of HIV, the AIDS virus, from the United States in 1985 and tried unsuccessfully to turn the slow killer into a weapon.
-- A senior military official told him that the Soviet Union had waged germ warfare in Afghanistan from planes, spraying armed rebels with glanders in an unsuccessful bid to subdue them. Glanders is a chronic bacterial disease of horses that can be highly lethal in humans.
-- Under a top-secret project known as Bonfire, Soviet scientists in 1989 discovered "a new class of weapons" -- now called bioregulators -- that could "damage the nervous system, alter moods, trigger psychological changes and even kill." The KGB secret police agency was particularly interested in them because they "could not be traced by pathologists." A Soviet program called Flute worked on germs and other agents that could be used mainly for political assassinations.
-- While directing about half of the Soviet biological-warfare work force, he says, he discovered that an abandoned factory in Kazakhstan where he and his childhood friends had played after school had once made noxious germs meant to kill enemy crops and livestock.
In his book, Alibek, a Kazakh by birth, says the Soviet state devoted a considerable part of its treasury to readying deadly germs for war. At its peak in the late 1980s, he writes, the program had 60,000 employees working at scores of sites throughout the Soviet Union.
"The Americans had just two specialists in anthrax," he wrote of his observations during his first tour of U.S. sites as part of a Soviet-American inspection agreement in 1991. "We had two thousand."
About a dozen of the 40 institutes that were part of Biopreparat, the civilian cover group that Alibek helped run, were used "exclusively" for offensive agents and weapons for the military, he wrote.
After he fled Russia and took up residence in the United States, Alibek says, he was approached by intermediaries of emissaries of several countries that courted him for his deadly expertise, including South Korea, France and Israel. The work for which he was to be hired was defensive, the intermediaries said.
At least 25 people who used to work in the Soviet germ-warfare program now work in the United States in nonweapons work, he writes. It is impossible to know how many have been recruited overseas. But there is no doubt, he adds, "that their expertise has been attracting bidders," including countries unfriendly to the United States.
The germ warriors staying behind apparently can be dangerous as well. He said he had recently received a disconcerting flier from a Moscow-based company, Bioeffekt Ltd. "It offered, by mail order, three genetically engineered strains of tularemia," Alibek said.
The disease, spread by a highly infectious germ, causes chills, fever, muscle aches, fatigue and pneumonialike symptoms, and can be fatal. The altered bacteria, he said, reportedly have new genes that increase the disease's virulence. The flier, Alibek said, boasted that the germs were produced by "technology unknown outside Russia."
Alibek has said he decided to speak out publicly to fight the spread of biological weapons and to seek absolution for having made them.
He described himself as once a "staunch patriot" who believed until his tour of U.S. biological sites while still a Soviet official that the United States had not unilaterally renounced offensive germ-weapons programs in 1969 as President Nixon had asserted. He said he had decided to write about the weapons program that was for decades one of Moscow's deepest secrets.