During the decades of the Cold War, as many as 40,000 scientists and specialists in the former Soviet Union were producing biological materials for weapons that filled up to 40 facilities, with the United States and other military foes as potential targets.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia and the other Soviet-successor states were unable to support the enormous Soviet scientific system, leaving all those who worked within that complex in unstable, difficult circumstances. Life for the once privileged community of scientists drastically deteriorated as tens of thousands lost their jobs or waited months for their paychecks.
"It was a huge transition for these scientists," says Joseph Silva, dean emeritus of the UC Davis School of Medicine and an infectious-disease expert.
Since the early 1990s, Silva has been on a personal quest to engage and retrain these scientists for peaceful and sustainable commercial pursuits, including infectious-disease prevention and control.
Building scientist-to-scientist relationships across the oceans, he has been a leader in collaborative efforts that have contributed significantly to upgrading biological research and biotechnology development, and in promoting the biological sciences, public health and agriculture protection in Russia and other former Soviet states.
He's traveled to Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet states 30 times, with a majority of the trips to Belarus, his family's homeland at the turn of the century. Silva himself grew up speaking the Belarusian language.
Silva's first visit to Belarus came during a lecture trip through Eastern Europe in 1991 when he went to the capital, Minsk, to help a microbiologist colleague set up a modern molecular biology laboratory.
"I visited there two or three times a year after that, giving training in clinical epidemiology and molecular biology, getting assistance from other parts of the world, updating them on scientific literature and discussing other opportunities," he says. "This became a personal passion of mine."
For the past several years, Silva has served on a committee of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences called the Committee on Future Contributions of the Biosciences to Public Health, Agriculture, Basic Research, Counterterrorism and Nonproliferation Activities in Russia.
As part of this committee, which includes well-known microbiologists and epidemiologists, Silva travels to Russia to conduct peer reviews of Russian research proposals that are considered within the framework of the Department of Defense's nonproliferation efforts funded by the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
In his visits to the former Soviet bioweapons program facilities, Silva advises the staff on how to secure many pathogens or strain collections and how to upgrade their biosafety and biosecurity protocols or procedures. He also recommends education and awareness training on good laboratory practices, good manufacturing practices, animal welfare and research ethics to promote greater responsibility within the facilities.
"We go in teams of three and four to help get the Russian scientists more equipment and to talk with them about how to guide their research and make them more productive," he says. "They have a great potential to contribute to the world's knowledge of organisms, virulence, epidemiology and better ways to diagnose and treat diseases."
The committee issued a report in 2005 underscoring the evolution of a stronger, more flexible public health system in Russia, increasingly integrated into global networks as the country responds to endemic and emerging diseases. Enhanced capabilities could contribute to a significant reduction of vaccine-preventable and drug-curable infections in both humans and animals in Russia.
However, one of the key needs identified was recruiting, training and retraining an expanded cadre of biomedical scientists, medical doctors, veterinarians, plant pathologists, epidemiologists and other relevant specialists equipped with modern technology and positioned to deal with infectious-disease threats, Silva says. There is now a shortage of biological scientists in the 30- to 45-year-old range with important knowledge and skills related to infectious diseases, because many have immigrated to other countries.
Silva is committed to nurturing a new generation of young scientific leaders in the former Soviet states.
"This mission is not so important for me, but it is critical for our kids and grandkids. If you don't control infectious diseases, it could be a disaster. There's still much to do, and it's going to take an international effort to bring these people up to speed."