Soviets Once Denied a Deadly Anthrax Lab Leak. U.S. Scientists Backed the Story.
YEKATERINBURG, Russia – Patients with unexplained pneumonia have started presenting in hospitals; within days, dozens were dead. The secret police seized the doctors’ files and ordered them to remain silent. American spies found clues to a lab leak, but local officials had a more mundane explanation: contaminated meat.
It took over a decade for the truth to come to light.
In April and May 1979, at least 66 people died after an anthrax bacteria emerged in the air of a military laboratory in the Soviet Union. But prominent American scientists have expressed confidence in the Soviets’ claim that the pathogen has passed from animals to humans. It was only after a thorough investigation in the 1990s that one of these scientists confirmed earlier suspicions: the accident in what is now the Russian city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals was a laboratory leak. , one of the deadliest ever documented.
Nowadays, some of the graves of the victims appear abandoned, their names erased from their metal plaques at the bottom of a cemetery on the outskirts of town, where they were buried in coffins with agricultural disinfectant. But the story of the crash that claimed their lives, and the cover-up that hid it, has resumed as scientists research the origins of Covid-19.
It shows how an authoritarian government can successfully shape the narrative of an epidemic and how it can take years – and, perhaps, regime change – to get to the truth.
“Crazy rumors swirl around every outbreak,” wrote Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel Prize-winning American biologist, in a note after a fact-finding trip to Moscow in 1986. “The current Soviet story is most likely true.”
Many scientists believe that the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic evolved in animals and at one point jumped onto humans. But scientists are also calling for further investigation into the possibility of an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
There are also concerns that the Chinese government – which like the Soviet government decades before it ruled out the possibility of a laboratory leak – could provide international investigators with access and data that could shed light on the origins of the pandemic. .
“We all have a common interest in whether this was due to a lab accident,” said Matthew Meselson, a Harvard biologist, in an interview this month in Cambridge, Mass., Referring to the coronavirus pandemic . “Perhaps it was some sort of accident that our current guidelines do not adequately protect against.”
Dr Meselson, a biological warfare expert, moved into a spare bedroom at a friend’s CIA house in 1980 to study classified information suggesting that the Soviet anthrax outbreak may have been linked to a military installation nearby. Six years later, he wrote that the Soviet explanation for the natural origins of the epidemic was “plausible”. Evidence provided by the Soviets was consistent, he said, with the theory that people had been stricken with intestinal anthrax from contaminated bone meal used as animal feed.
Then, in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris N. Yelstin admitted that “our military development was the cause” of the anthrax epidemic.
Dr Meselson and his wife, medical anthropologist Jeanne Guillemin, came to Yekaterinburg with other American experts for a careful study. They documented how a northeast wind on April 2, 1979 must have dispersed as little as a few milligrams of anthrax spores accidentally released from the plant across a narrow area extending at least 30 miles downwind.
“You can whip up a completely crazy story and make it plausible by the way you conceive of it,” said Dr Meselson, explaining why the Soviets had succeeded in allaying suspicion of a lab leak.
In Sverdlovsk, as Yekaterinburg was called in Soviet times, those suspicions arose as soon as people began to mysteriously fall ill, according to interviews this month with locals who remember those days.
Raisa Smirnova, then a 32-year-old worker at a nearby ceramics factory, says she had friends at the mysterious complex who used their special privileges to help her source otherwise hard-to-find canned oranges and meat. find. She also heard that there was some sort of secret germ work being carried out there and that local rumors attributed occasional outbreaks of disease to the lab.
“Why are your hands blue?” Ms. Smirnova recalls a colleague asking her one day in April 1979 when she went to work, apparently showing symptoms of low blood oxygen.
She was rushed to hospital with a high fever and, she says, spent a week there unconscious. By May, around 18 of his colleagues had died. Before she was allowed to return home, KGB agents brought her a document to sign, forbidding her from speaking about the events for 25 years.
In the epidemiological service of Sverdlovsk, epidemiologist Viktor Romanenko was an infantryman in cover-up. He says he knew immediately that the disease outbreak that struck the city could not be food-borne intestinal anthrax, as senior health officials claimed. The pattern and timing of the distribution of cases showed that the source was airborne and this was a one-time event.
“We all understood that this was total nonsense,” said Dr Romanenko, who became a senior regional health official in post-Soviet times.
But in a communist state, he had no choice but to accept the masquerade, and he and his colleagues spent months grasping and testing meat. KGB agents came down to his office and took away the medical files. The Soviet Union had signed a treaty banning biological weapons and national interests were at stake.
“It was understood that we had to move as far as possible from the theory of biological weapons,” recalls Dr Romanenko. “The task was to defend the honor of the country.”
There was even nervousness in Evening Sverdlovsk, a local newspaper. A New York Times correspondent called the newsroom as the outbreak unfolded, then reporter Aleksandr Pashkov recalled. The editor told staff to stop answering long-distance calls, lest someone lose the message if the caller called again.
“He who knows how to keep a secret wins,” said Pashkov.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, its ability to keep secrets collapsed. For a 1992 documentary, Mr Pashkov tracked down a retired counterintelligence officer in Ukraine – now a different country – who was working in Sverdlovsk at the time. Telephone interceptions at the military lab, the officer said, revealed that a technician forgot to replace a safety filter.
Soon Mr Yeltsin – who was himself part of the cover-up as the region’s top Communist official in 1979 – admitted that the military was to blame.
“You have to understand a simple thing,” said Pashkov. “Why has all this come to be known? The collapse of the Union.
The husband-and-wife team of Dr Meselson and Dr Guillemin traveled to Yekaterinburg several times in the 1990s to document the leak. Interviewing the survivors, they traced the whereabouts of the victims and investigated the weather records, concluding that Dr Meselson and others were wrong to give credence to the Soviet narrative.
Dr Meselson said that when he contacted a Russian official in the early 1990s to reexamine the outbreak, the response was, ‘Why take the skeletons out of the closet? “
But he said determining the origins of epidemics becomes more critical when geopolitics is involved. If he and his colleagues had not proven the cause of the outbreak at the time, he said, the issue could still be an irritant in relations between Russia and the West.
The same goes for the investigation into the source of Covid-19, Dr Meselson said. As long as the source of the pandemic remains suspect, he said, the issue will continue to raise tensions with China, more than if the truth were known.
“There is a huge difference between people who are always trying to prove their point against emotional opposition and people who can look back and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I was right,’ Dr. Meselson. “One of them fuels wars. The other is history. We have to solve all these problems. We need history, we don’t need all this emotion.”
Unlike Covid-19, anthrax does not easily pass from human to human, which is why the leak from the Sverdlovsk laboratory did not cause a larger epidemic. Even the Sverdlovsk case, however, has not been fully resolved. It is still unclear whether the factory’s covert activity was the development of illegal biological weapons – which the Soviet Union is known to have carried out – or research for vaccines.
Under President Vladimir V. Putin, revealing Russia’s historical shortcomings is increasingly seen as unpatriotic. With the government’s mother on what exactly happened, a different theory gained ground: Perhaps it was Western agents who deliberately released anthrax spores to undermine the Communist regime.
“The concept of truth, in fact, is very complicated,” said Lev Grinberg, a pathologist from Yekaterinburg who secretly preserved evidence of the true nature of the epidemic in 1979. “Those who do not want to accept the truth will always find ways not to accept it.
Oleg Matsnev contributed to the research.
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