Sibbiopharm: From Bioweapons to Biologics

CRDF Global team member surveying an abandoned building at Sibbiopharm's production facility.
CRDF Global team member surveying an abandoned building at Sibbiopharm's production facility.

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Sibbiopharm: From Bioweapons to Biologics

Siberia might be the last place that anyone would expect to find a state-of-the-art microbiological production facility, but nestled beside the River Berd in the small town of Berdsk sits Sibbiopharm.

Upon touring Sibbiopharm, you would notice that its facilities are modern, its equipment is state-of-the-art, and its processes are sophisticated and efficient. But this was not always the case. What is not as obvious is the facility’s 60-year history as a former Soviet biologics production plant whose future was left uncertain in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Without the USSR’s support, Sibbiopharm slid into dereliction leaving many of its scientists, researchers, and technicians wondering how they might keep dinner on the table for their families.

Yet, perhaps the more troubling problem was dual-use microbiological production capacity housed within its walls that posed inherent security and health risks for the city of Berdsk, the Novosibirsk region, and internationally for both Russia and the U.S. Dual-use capacities – whether in the form of equipment or subject matter expertise – are those that can be used either for the public good – for example, production of enzymes for food industries or for more nefarious purposes, such as the production of biological weapons.

Working through the U.S. Department of State’s BioIndustry Initiative, CRDF Global committed nearly a decade to helping turn this once defunct biologics production facility into a thriving, international biotechnology enterprise, ensuring that Sibbiopharm’s capacity for bioweapons production would not fall into the wrong hands.

Privatized in 2004, Sibbiopharm found a new lease on life as owners and investors sought to use its production capacity to capitalize on global demand for consumable biologicals, such as a fertilizer and antibiotics. Lacking the technical skills and knowledge required to operate in their new capacity as a private business, the new owners and investors enlisted the help of CRDF Global in training its staff, which included nine former weapons scientists, renovating its facilities, and developing a sound and sustainable business plan.

“We worked with them to help develop plans for a new, revived, and modern production facility,” says Valerie DeThomas, a senior program manager at CRDF Global and key member of the renovation project. “We also helped identify the areas where they lacked expertise or understanding of how markets work outside of Russia, and then enlisted subject matter experts to help develop business plans for individual units.”

In addition to facilitating the large-scale upgrades to Sibbiopharm’s infrastructure, Sibbiopharm’s staff and local leaders also dismantled its dual-use capabilities, fulfilling the objectives of the U.S. State Department’s BioIndustry Initiative and ensuring that Sibbiopharm was fully equipped and able to practice safe and responsible science. Today, Sibbiopharm is one of Russia’s largest producers of commercial biologics. It currently manufactures over 30 different products including fertilizers and antibiotics for agricultural industries, and its owners plan to expand internationally throughout Europe, North Africa, and South America.

“Our experience with CRDF Global and the BioIndustry Initiative has been successful and productive. The program provided a creative and benevolent atmosphere for our employees that allowed them to get answers to all their questions,” said Sibbiopharm’s General Director, Alexander Krichevskiy.

“Before Sibbiopharm was privatized, it was basically a dying enterprise,” said DeThomas. “People were laid off, and a lot of those people were scientists with advanced degrees. By the end of the project, a lot of those same scientists were back working full-time. That’s a great social impact on the community.”

Sibbiopharm’s business continues to grow as it attracts top talent from local universities throughout the region and has become the type of scientific and technological enterprise that many communities throughout the world strive to attract.