Book Excerpt: 'Anthrax'

The BWC has remained largely a good-faith pact among nations, but it is because of it that our research team has become involved with investigating the 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk. In March 1980, during the first review session of the BWC in Geneva, the U.S. State Department raised its initial concern that the Sverdlovsk outbreak signaled a Soviet violation of the convention. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous December had already ruptured relations between the two superpowers and precipitated a long list of U.S. economic and political sanctions against the Soviets. U.S. suspicions about Sverdlovsk were based on satellite photographs of the city's military Compound 19, on covert intelligence reports, and on an anonymous article published in January 1980 in West Germany, in the Russian dissident broadside Posev (Sowing). This account of the outbreak was translated by the CIA and made available to American reporters just in time to rock the BWC review session. The article's author described hearing about a tremendous "explosion" of anthrax in Sverdlovsk and laid the blame on the military. "During a month or so an average of 30-40 people died each day," the author wrote. "The total number of deaths can be estimated at about 1000." The report described the removal of contaminated topsoil and the paving of streets in a nearby village to cover the contaminated earth. "One would imagine this is the only asphalted village in the Urals," the anonymous author commented. The article also added that no animal cases occurred, although within the city stray dogs were reportedly destroyed to control the spread of the disease.

Taken by surprise, the Soviet Foreign Ministry in Moscow at first denied the outbreak. Then it followed up with a statement that an anthrax epidemic in the Urals had occurred but had been caused by "improper handling of meat products." On March 21, the last day of the BWC review meetings, Viktor Israelyan, the head of the Soviet delegation, stood and delivered a final response to the U.S. suspicions of forbidden work in biological weapons and a leak of deadly anthrax:

In March-April 1979 in the area of Sverdlovsk there did in fact occur an ordinary outbreak of anthrax among animals, which arose from natural causes, and there were cases where people contracted an intestinal form of this infection as a result of eating meat from cattle which was sold against the regulations established by the veterinary inspectorate. In this connection an appropriate warning appeared in the press. However, this incident has no bearing on the question of compliance by the USSR with the Convention on the Prohibition of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons. In this connection there are no grounds whatsoever for the question which was raised by the U.S. delegation.

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