Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Contact:  Sun, 28 Jun 1998


It does not look like the nerve centre of the best-kept secret in the war
against drugs. The perimeter walls are dull concrete topped with barbed
wire; the buildings drab; a guardhouse and a huge mechanical steel gate
offer the only entry.

But the compound set beyond the sprawl of tractor factories and grey
apartment blocks of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, could hold the
answer to tackling the international trade in heroin.

Inside this cold war relic in one of the most isolated cities in the world,
scientists supported by Britain and America are carrying out a secret
project that challenges some of the most powerful criminals in the world.

Uzbekistan was once part of the Soviet Union and locals know the compound
as a former centre for germ warfare research. A sign outside celebrates the
place as the "Garden of Victory", so called because the compound used to
produce horticultural pathogens, including wheat rust and cereal blight -
biological agents designed to destroy the food crops of the motherland's

Though the compound now goes by the more prosaic title of the Uzbekistan
Institute of Genetics, staff are still bussed in, Soviet-style, at 8.30am
and out again at 4.30pm each day. Inside are three large blocks containing
19 laboratories built in the 1950s, a row of greenhouses and an
experimental farm.

The deputy director of the team of scientists is Rustam Makhmudovich, a
nervous, bespectacled figure. "We still are experts in biological research,
even though we no longer take our orders from Moscow," he said last week in
his office on the first floor of the main laboratory building.

"I am not allowed to reveal anything concerning the fungus project. I can
only tell you that we have about 200 scientific staff, including 24
doctoral researchers and 70 other scientists.

"In the Soviet period we were concerned only with military research,
including radiation testing. Now we have other priorities."

Makhmudovich's office is one of the few areas in the building that
resembles an ordinary room. Padlocked steel doors bar the way to the
compound's other facilities. Unexpected visitors are guided swiftly away.

Behind the locked steel doors, spores of a refined and rampant strain of a
fungus called Pleospora papaveracea are stored and cultured. This could be
the weapon that cuts off the heroin trade at source by devastating the
opium poppy fields of Asia's golden crescent and golden triangle, the
principal sources of raw material for the heroin trade.

ORDINARY Pleospora papaveracea is present in southern Europe and throughout
Asia; it can even be found as far south as Tasmania. It is not particularly
deadly to plants and is seen as little more than a nuisance to farmers who
grow poppies legally for medical purposes.

But in the late 1980s Soviet scientists began to take an interest and tried
to develop a more deadly strain. "The fungus causes the poppy leaves to
erupt in lesions," said a British scientist who has witnessed the effect of
these spores. "They spread and coalesce until the plant shrivels and begins
to die."

The new strain was almost lost in the ruins of communism. Just as the
scientists were making progress, the Soviet empire began to implode. When
Uzbekistan became an independent republic in 1991, thousands of papers from
the institute were transported back to Moscow and the research became lost
in the chaos. But in their hurried exit the Kremlin scientists left behind
hundreds of biological samples, frozen inside the laboratory storerooms.

In 1992 the institute reopened and began to blossom again as a civilian
research centre. Its new director, Professor Abdusattar Abdukarimov, an
expert in plant genetics, examined the stored specimens and recognised the
potential of the fungus, but had little money to pursue development. His
attempts to raise interest and funds failed until the institute's work came
to the notice of a British expert in plant pathogens who is also a
consultant to the United Nations drug control programme (UNDCP).

The Foreign Office and American agencies also learnt of the research and
recognised its potential. They pondered two courses of action: pursuing the
research in Uzbekistan, where facilities were less advanced, or
transferring it to the West.

Secrecy, safety and political sensitivity argued for Uzbekistan. The fungus
was an untested biological agent and potentially dangerous. And if such a
biological weapon originated in Britain or America, it might be seen as an
act of germ warfare if deployed against countries such as Afghanistan and
Tajikistan, where opium poppies are an increasingly important crop.

It was agreed to fund the institute in Uzbekistan to conduct further
research; Britain is thought to have supplied approximately a third of the
money, the United States two-thirds; it was all channelled through the UN.

According to western sources, some $500,000 has been supplied for chemicals
and equipment, and the American government is funding salaries for
scientists in Uzbekistan. The institute, as well as the project, has
effectively been taken over by western powers.

The fungus is now being tested on opium poppies being grown in remote parts
of eastern Uzbekistan on the border with Kyrgyzstan.

"Conditions are ideal," said Nazarov Timur, head of drug abuse prevention
for the Uzbekistan government. "A number of illicit cultivation plots are
being treated with small amounts of the fungus. I think they have had 100%

UZBEKISTAN is on the rim of the golden crescent - the region of central
Asia that threatens to become the biggest producer of opium for refining
into heroin.

Where once the golden triangle of Burma, Laos and Thailand dominated the
opium trade, now Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan are also big producers.

To the south of Uzbekistan an estimated 60,000 hectares of poppies are
under cultivation in Afghanistan, producing enough opium to make almost 300
tons a year of the purest heroin.

Many of the plantations are in the mountainous regions on the
Afghan-Pakistan border and in areas controlled by the Taliban Islamic

The Taliban has turned a blind eye to opium growing, claiming that farmers
need the income to rebuild their war-scarred villages. The truth is
simpler: opium is a lucrative cash crop which the UN estimates earned
Afghan farmers A3100m last year; the Taliban is thought to take a 10% cut.

From the poppy fields the opium travels by lorry to southeast Turkey where
gangs operate at least 20 to 30 laboratories for refining it into heroin.
It is then smuggled through the Balkans or, latterly eastern Europe, Russia
and Poland, into western Europe. The golden crescent now supplies about 90%
of the heroin which reaches Britain's streets.

In 1997 opium production in Afghanistan leapt by a quarter to 2,800 tons.
Another bumper crop is forecast this year. The flood of heroin has reduced
the price of a single "wrap" to little more than the cost of a pint of beer.

Against this background, the work at the Tashkent institute has taken on a
greater urgency. MI6 has been kept informed of progress. Earlier this month
a British expert from the Institute of Arable Crops Research - a
government-backed body near Bristol - visited the laboratory complex and
delivered a favourable report on progress.

The work has also been vetted and cleared by the Ministry of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Food, and the International Institute of Biological Control,
at Ascot, which specialises in the environmental effects of natural plant

Plans for deploying the fungus are advancing rapidly. Two scientists are to
be brought from Uzbekistan to Britain to train them in "formulation
technology", to make the fungus in sprayable form, and the use of
fermenters to produce large quantities of it.

Once introduced to a crop, the fungus can spread through the aerial
transmission of its own spores, but the rate of contamination can be
increased by spraying from an aircraft.

Though further tests must be conducted to ensure the fungus has no harmful
side effects - and none has been found so far - the potential for mass
production is already there. A confidential research report states:
"Production capacity to treat approximately 2,000 hectares of illicit opium
poppy crop currently in cultivation in the subregion [central Asia] could
be established relatively easily, and at modest cost."

The aim will not be to wipe out the poppy fields - as opium growers could
simply replant - but to infect the poppies without killing them. Growers,
the theory goes, would still expend time and effort on their debilitated
plants yet produce very little of the drug.

Will the Garden of Victory march onwards against the poppy? Scientists and
UN staff have been forbidden to talk about the project.

"I can talk about other matters but not about this," said Bogdan Lisovich,
representative of the UN drug control programme in Uzbekistan. "There are
very big issues at stake."

- ---