anthrax

Throwback Thursday: Sverdlovsk Anthrax Leak 1979

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Sverdlovsk Image One
Photo Credit: topwar.ru & weaponews.com

Forty-one years ago, today, spores of anthrax were accidentally released from a Soviet military research facility near the city of Sverdlovsk, Russia (now Yekaterinburg/Ekaterinburg).

On April 2, 1979, there was an unusual anthrax outbreak, which affected 94 people and killed at least 64 of them, in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk, roughly 850 miles east of Moscow. The first victim died after four days. [T]he last one died six weeks later. The Soviet government claimed the deaths were caused by intestinal anthrax from tainted meat, a story some influential American scientists found believable. However, officials in the Carter Administration suspected the outbreak was caused by an accidental release of anthrax spores from a suspected Soviet biological weapons facility located in the city (Military Compound 19). The US believed that the Soviet Union was violating the Biological Weapons Convention signed in 1972 and made their suspicions public. But, the Soviets denied any activities relating to biological weapons and, at numerous international conferences, tried to prove their contaminated meat story. It wasn’t until thirteen years later, in 1992, that President Boris Yeltsin admitted, without going into details, that the anthrax outbreak was the result of military activity at the facility. [Russia] allowed a team of Western scientists to go to Sverdlovsk to investigate the outbreak. The team visited Sverdlovsk in June 1992 and August 1993 […].

Military Facility Image Two
Photo Credit: topwar.ru & weaponews.com

Although the KGB had confiscated hospital and other records after the incident, the Western scientists were able to track where all the victims had been at the time of the anthrax release. Their results showed that on the day of the incident, all the victims were clustered along a straight line downwind from the military facility. Livestock in the same area also died of anthrax. After completing their investigation, the team concluded the outbreak was caused by a release of an aerosol of anthrax pathogen at the military facility. But, they were unable to determine what caused the release or what specific activities were conducted at the facility.

“Clogged filter, I removed it. Replace the filter”. [A] reminder on a piece of paper left [by a] factory worker […] to his mate when he went home on Friday evening…

Colonel Nicholas Cheryshev, shift supervisor at the plant, […] was in a hurry to go home and, for some unknown reason, was not aware of the lack of filter. In the end, the workers on the night shift, finding entries in the log window, quietly launched [the] equipment. [For] more than three hours, the plant was [throwing], into the air [of] the night sky of […] Sverdlovsk, portions [of] dried culture of anthrax. When the lack of bio-security was discovered, production was urgently stopped, […] the filter [replaced] and [they], quietly, continued working.

It was an accident at a clandestine biological weapons lab that allowed deadly anthrax spores to contaminate Sverdlovsk’s air, as evidence unearthed later would show. Over the years, as DNA sequencing technology has improved, scientists have been piecing together more and more information about the anthrax strain.

This facility has not been closed. It just went underground…literally. ~Vic

Sources & Additional Reading
Sverdlovsk Anthrax Leak (Adam Smith Institute)
1979 Anthrax Leak (PBS: Frontline)
How DNA Evidence Confirmed A Soviet Cover-Up (The Atlantic)
The Tragedy of Sverdlosk-19 (Weapon News)
Biohazard Book (Wikipedia)
Sverdlovsk Anthrax Leak (Wikipedia)