In early 2006, a mysterious cosmetics trader named Rakhman began showing up at salons in St. Petersburg, Russia, hawking a popular anti-ageing drug at suspiciously low prices. He flashed a briefcase filled with vials and promised he could deliver more — “as many as you want,” he told buyers — from a supplier somewhere in Chechnya.
Rakhman’s “Botox” was found to be a potent clone of the real thing, but investigators soon turned to a far bigger worry: the prospect of an illegal factory in Chechnya churning out raw botulinum toxin, the key ingredient in the beauty drug and in its pure form, the most toxic substance known. A speck of toxin smaller than a grain of sand can kill a 150-pound adult.
No Chechen factory has yet been found, but a search for the maker of the highly lethal toxin in Rakhman’s vials continues across a widening swath of Eastern Europe and Asia. US offici-als and security experts say they know the lab exists, and likely dozens of other such labs, judging from the surging black market for the drug.
Al Qaeda is known to have sought botulinum toxin. The Lebanese Hezbol-lah movement and other groups have bought and sold counterfeit drugs to raise cash. Now, with the emerge-nce of a global black mark-et for fake Botox, terrorism experts see an opportunity for a deadly convergence.
“It is the only profit-making venture for terrorists that can also potentially yie-ld a weapon of mass destru-ction,” said Kenneth Cole-man, a biodefense expert.
Last year, a study found that a biologist with a master’s degree and $2,000 worth of equipment could easily make a gram of pure toxin, an amount equal to the weight of a small paperclip but enough, in theory, to kill thousands of people.
Obtaining the most lethal strain of the bacteria would have once posed a significant hurdle for terrorists. But today, the prospect of tapping into the multibillion-dollar market for anti-wrinkle drugs has spawned an underground network of suppliers and distributors who do most of their transactions online. Customers don’t need prescriptions or identification, other than a shipping address.
So lethal is the undiluted toxin that at least three countries, the US, the ex-Soviet Union and Iraq, explored its use as a possible biological or chemical weapon. All three gave up because botulinum toxin degrades quickly in heat, making it poorly suited for delivery by missile or bomb.
Terrorists, on the other hand, have long been drawn to the toxin as a way to inflict widespread casualties through contamination of food or water supplies. The Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo experimented with a botulinum weapon in the early 1990s. An Al-Qaeda training manual discovered in 2001 advocated the use of botulinum toxin in terrorist attacks.
Al-Qaeda’s known bio-weapons efforts were hampered by rudimentary lab equipment and limited access to lethal strains. All of those problems can now be bypassed at a time when illicit networks are making the toxin for profit, said Coleman, the co-author of the DOD study. “There are no major obstacles,” he said. “It’s not that hard to acquire the bacterial strains. But you don’t even have to make it. You can buy it from existing manufacturers. And you can buy it in sufficient quantity to cause widespread harm.” The case of the Russian counterfeiter offers a glimpse into an illegal network of fake Botox suppliers.
Anti-wrinkle drugs are exceptionally popular in Russia and Eastern Europe.
But commercial botulinum toxin is costly, and many users have flocked to vendors who offer cheaper substitutes, said Marina Voronova, a bio-weapons expert.
Voronova said the Rakhman case came to light because of the man’s success in undercutting licensed suppliers in St. Petersburg’s salon circuit — and also because he was among few vendors to make personal sales calls in an industry that mostly operates in cyberspace. Rakhman built up a brisk trade simply by walking into upscale shops and offering to sell Botox at a discount, she said.
"He was coming to St. Petersburg with a suitcase full of vials," said Voronova, who learned details of Rakhman's sales pitch in interviews with local officials. Rakhman took regular flights from Chechnya and seemed to have unlimited supply. When asked how many doses he could deliver, he replied: "As many as you want." Rakhman abruptly halted his when local authorities began closing in. Russian investigators were never able to determine where his counterfeit Botox was manufactured.
Coleman, in a study, concluded that much of the fake Botox sold over the internet originated in China. But the report noted the toxin itself could be made in a garage-sized laboratory almost anywhere. China recently shut down a Botox copycat factory in Shanxi, but only after a patent violation case was filed by a US firm. One US investigator said illegal online Botox sales were a problem “out of control”. “We don’t how much is getting through,” he said. “We know Al Qaeda has talked about going after food supplies in the US. There are new reasons to be concerned about what they're going to target next.”
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