Book Excerpt: 'Anthrax'

During the 1980s, as Cold War tensions heightened, the U.S. investment in weapons systems (including renewed production of chemical weapons) quadrupled, and American press reports about alleged Soviet treaty violations, in Sverdlovsk and elsewhere, filled the news. Yet during this time no formal complaint about the 1979 epidemic was lodged against the Soviet Union at the United Nations Security Council by the United States or any other nation. Meanwhile, throughout these years, Matthew kept pressing for a full on-site investigation of the Sverdlovsk incident and sent numerous missives to Soviet officials and fellow scientists, asking for research cooperation. In August 1986, after Mikhail Gorbachev began to liberalize contact with the West, Matthew was invited to Moscow for a private meeting with the three principal public health physicians who had been sent from Moscow to Sverdlovsk in the 1979 epidemic and who now offered their evidence for the Soviet infected-meat explanation of the outbreak. Later, in October of that year, a delegation to Moscow from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, chaired by Joshua Lederberg, heard the physicians' case, in both a formal presentation and informal discussion. Following that, in 1988, with Matthew handling the arrangements, two of those Soviet physicians came to the United States to present and defend their government's explanation of the 1979 anthrax outbreak. They spoke to professional audiences at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge. Their detailed presentation of the infected-meat scenario was judged plausible, even persuasive, although it lacked substantive clinical and epidemiological evidence.

Following that 1988 visit, Matthew persisted in expressing the need for a scientific investigation of the outbreak — in Congressional testimony, in print, and on the radio. In 1990, he wrote, "On the Soviet side there needs to be a political decision to allow qualified US officials freely to examine what remains of the relevant evidence and to meet with surviving patients and local medical, public health, and veterinary personnel in Sverdlovsk. In addition, US experts should be invited to visit, on a suitable reciprocal basis, the facility described in the allegations."

As the Cold War came to an end, the question remained whether all trust in the Soviet Union's adherence to the BWC had been misplaced. More to the point now perhaps was whether the new Russia was capable of fully revealing any violations at Soviet facilities. And if not, could the world trust this new government? In 1992, as we begin our investigation, the two explanations for the cause of the 1979 anthrax outbreak — a meat-borne infection or an aerosol biological weapons leak — continue to rest on conflicting assertions, neither as yet proven by facts. But now the doors to Russia are open so wide that even an unofficial group like ours can walk in and start asking questions. Will they be answered?

-- From "Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak," by Jeanne Guillemin. © Dec. 14, 1999, University of California Press. Used by permission.

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