INDEPENDENT NEWS

Cablegate: Russia Declines Usg Request to Extend Joint Smallpox

Published: Wed 26 Aug 2009 05:37 AM
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DE RUEHMO #2199/01 2380537
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 260537Z AUG 09
FM AMEMBASSY MOSCOW
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 4631
INFO RUEAUSA/DEPT OF HHS WASHINGTON DC
RUEHYG/AMCONSUL YEKATERINBURG 3680
RUEHVK/AMCONSUL VLADIVOSTOK 3327
RUEHZN/ENVIRONMENT SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COLLECTIVE
RUEHPH/CDC ATLANTA GA
RHMFIUU/DTRA CT WASHINGTON DC
RUEAEPA/HQ EPA WASHDC
RHMFIUU/DEPT OF ENERGY WASHINGTON DC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC
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UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 MOSCOW 002199
SENSITIVE
SIPDIS
DEPARTMENT FOR USAID, OES/IHB, EUR/RUS, ISN/CTR
HHS FOR OGHA
HHS PLEASE PASS TO NIH
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: TBIO SOCI SCUL TSPL TNGD PREL PARM EAID OSCI RS
SUBJECT: RUSSIA DECLINES USG REQUEST TO EXTEND JOINT SMALLPOX
RESEARCH THROUGH ISTC
REF: A. 08 Moscow 1420
B. State 18854
MOSCOW 00002199 001.2 OF 002
SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED -- PLEASE PROTECT ACCORDINGLY.
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: On August 12, Russian federal authorities informed
the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) that the
government will not support resumption of three U.S.-funded smallpox
projects at the Vector Center for Virology and Biotechnology near
Novosibirsk. In a curt letter, Russia's chief medical officer
notified ISTC that the Russian government already has sufficient
funding for smallpox research. Although this puts an end to two
years of USG efforts to convince the Russian government to resume
USG-supported smallpox research at Vector through ISTC, there are
signs that Vector might be allowed to work with international
scientists on certain projects under certain conditions. Although
the Russian government is clearly sensitive about U.S. cooperation
with Vector on smallpox and other issues, the USG should consider
whether and how it wants to continue a dialogue with the GOR on
joint work on smallpox, with or without access to Vector. END
SUMMARY.
2. (SBU) On August 12, ISTC received notification via a sharply
worded letter from Dr. Gennadiy Onishchenko, Chief of the Russian
Federal Service for Consumer Protection and Human Welfare
(Rospotrebnadzor), that USG-funded support for orthopoxvirus
research at the high-security Vector Center for Virology and
Biotechnology near Novosibirsk is no longer required. (Note: Vector
is the only Russian facility with declared smallpox samples. End
note.) Onishchenko's letter, dated August 4, came in response to an
inquiry from State Duma Deputy Boris Nikonov asking Rospotrebnadzor
to support amendments to continue and expand the three ISTC smallpox
projects at Vector. Onishchenko's letter reminds ISTC that all
project proposals presented to ISTC require approval of the Russian
government, which reserves the exclusive prerogative to decide on
the suitability of those projects for implementation by Russian
organizations. The letter concludes that orthopoxvirus research at
Vector is already adequately funded by the Russian government.
TWO YEARS OF EFFORTS TO EXTEND THREE PROJECTS
---------------------------------------------
3. (SBU) The following three joint smallpox projects with funding
from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and
Department of Defense began at Vector in 2001:
-- "Conservation of Genetic Material and Study of Genomic Structure
of Different Variola Virus Strains";
-- "Combinatorial Antibody Libraries to Orthopoxviruses"; and
-- "Search for Antivirals for Treating and Prevention of
Orthopoxviral Infections, Including Smallpox."
In 2007, the U.S. proposed extending the projects to build upon the
completed research and expand cooperation. Former HHS Secretary
Leavitt raised the request in several letters to Russian Ministers
of Health, and senior U.S. officials brought up the subject in
discussions with Russian health officials. In late 2007, the
Russian side indicated vaguely that the first two projects would be
restarted, while the antivirals project would require additional
review and changes. Dr. Onishchenko made a similar statement to a
senior HHS delegation in May 2008 (ref A), but without giving a date
for resumption of the projects. Vector's Director, Dr. Ilya
Drozdov, told HHS DAS Gerald Parker in February 2009 that he was not
aware of the reasons behind the delay in approval, but he noted that
the GOR was providing significant funding for smallpox research and
was considering building a new facility for it (ref B). Drozdov
told us that the funding came from the Federal Targeted Program on
Chemical and Biological Safety, approved in October 2008.
THE NAGGING ISSUE OF ACCESS
---------------------------
4. (SBU) The stipulation that U.S. government personnel have
periodic physical access to Vector probably contributed to
Onishchenko's decision to refuse extending the three smallpox
MOSCOW 00002199 002.2 OF 002
projects. In recent years, U.S. project partners have only rarely
received access to Vector's facilities. Under Russian procedures,
partners must request access at least 60 days in advance, and Dr.
Onishchenko must approve the requests personally. With isolated
exceptions, those requests have been rejected or gone unanswered for
the past two years. In a recent example, in April 2009,
Rospotrebnadzor declined a Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA)
request for USG personnel to meet with Vector personnel on site or
in Moscow to verify that work was completed on a biosafety
enhancement project. When U.S. partners counterproposed a
teleconference with Vector personnel, Vector responded that written
permission would be required. Onishchenko in July rejected another
ISTC proposal for USG-funded biomedical research cooperation between
Vector and the Tarasevich Institute of Standardization and Control
of Biomedical Preparations, reportedly declaring, "We don't need any
more projects with ISTC." Most recently, a Defense Contract Audit
Agency delegation canceled a planned August visit to Russia for
audits of Biotechnology Engagement Program (BTEP)-funded projects at
Vector and other facilities, because with one week remaining before
the visit, Rospotrebnadzor had not yet approved access to Vector.
COMMENT: HOW TO CONTINUE SMALLPOX COOPERATION?
--------------------------------------------- -
5. (SBU) Onischenko's response appears to rule out U.S.
government-financed collaboration with Russia on smallpox. We do
not believe that Onishchenko denied the proposal only because of the
U.S. origin or ISTC management of the funds. Rather, Russian
authorities are wary of any U.S. government cooperation with Vector.
So we see little hope for direct U.S. access to Vector and probably
to other similar facilities controlled by Rospotrebnadzor, such as
the Center for Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology at Obolensk.
The decision on joint smallpox research also suggests that the
Russian government remains unconcerned by the growing chorus of
voices at the World Health Organization's World Health Assembly
calling for a WHO resolution to destroy official smallpox
repositories.
6. (SBU) Despite these negative signals, however, there are other
signs that Onishchenko may allow Vector to collaborate with the
international scientific community on public health issues of global
concern. In June 2009, Vector was designated as a World Health
Organization (WHO) collaborating center on avian (H5N1) influenza,
the result of an application filed on Onishchenko's initiative more
than two years earlier. If the USG views cooperation on smallpox
with Russia as still being valuable, even without physical access to
Vector, and with limited access to its scientists, post believes it
would be worthwhile to pursue discussions on the subject with the
GOR.
BEYRLE
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