Friday, April 07, 2006


The Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak of 1979

"The wind blew the anthrax spores, as I understand it, away from Sverdlovsk. If the wind had been blowing the other way back into the city of Sverdlovsk what could the death rate have been?"

"Dozens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands."*

Anthrax is an acute infection caused by 'Bacillus anthracis.' Extremely rare in developed countries it affects herbivores such as goats, sheep and cattle but can be caught by, and prove lethal to, humans. Anthrax spores can stay dormant in the soil for decades. The disease leapt into the news in America after September 11 when Anthrax laden letters were posted to congress in the USA.

It can be transmitted from infected animals through cuts in the skin, inhalation of spores and gastrointestinally through eating infected meat. Inhalation, the rarest form of transmission, causes severe breathing problems and shock, and is usually fatal.

Anthrax swept through Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), 850 miles east of Moscow, in the spring of 1979. 94 people fell ill, at least 64 dying, the first victim after four days, the last six weeks later. No news was released in the Soviet Union, the first word leaking out in a Frankfurt newspaper close to the emigre Russian community in October, 1979.

U.S. intelligence studied satellite imagery and signals intercepts and found signs of a serious accident at the time, including roadblocks and decontamination trucks around Compound 19, a high security military installation in the south of the city.

The victims worked or lived in a narrow zone extending south from Compound 19. Further south, beyond the city, large numbers of livestock died or were destroyed. The wind had been from the north before the outbreak.

The USA accused the Soviet Union of violating the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention while the Soviets issued angry claims that the outbreak was caused by eating tainted meat. A "A Germ of Lying," published by TASS on March 24,1980, argued that anthrax was naturally endemic to the area and condemned the US for "spurring up the arms race and..intensifying tensions in the relations between states."

'Glasnost' allowed calls for the truth to be raised, if not heard. In 1990 "Military Secret: Reasons for the Tragedy in Sverdlovsk Must be Investigated," by Natalya Zenova in 'Literaturnaya Gazeta', and "The Secret of the 'Sarcophagus'," by Sergey Parfenov in 'Rodina' increased public pressure for Moscow to reveal what really happened.

Excellent Washington Post article with first hand accounts of the epidemic

"We are still deceiving you, Mr. Bush."

In 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted the military had, after all, been to blame. Yeltsin had been Communist Party chief in the region at the time of the outbreak and believed the KGB and military had lied to him about the truth.

At a summit in February 1992, Yeltsin told President Bush that the Soviets had violated the 1972 biological weapons convention and that the Sverdlovsk incident had been caused by an bio-weapons disaster. In a press intervew on May 27th, Yeltsin revealed what he'd told Bush in private:

"We are still deceiving you, Mr. Bush. We promised to eliminate bacteriological weapons. But some of our experts did everything possible to prevent me from learning the truth. It was not easy, but I outfoxed them. I caught them red-handed. I found two test sites. They are inoculating tracts of land with anthrax, allowing wild animals to go there and observing them..."

In a subsequent interview, Yeltsin expanded on the extent of the deception.

"When I learned these developments were under way, I visited [the KGB chairman Yuriy] Andropov. . . . When there was an anthrax outbreak, the official conclusion stated it was carried by some dog, though later the KGB admitted that our military development was the cause. Andropov phoned [Minister of Defense Dimitriy] Ustinov and ordered these production facilities to be completely scrapped. I believed that this had been done. It turned out that the laboratories were simply moved to another oblast and development of the weapons continued. And I told Bush, [British prime minister John] Major, and [French president Francois] Mitterand this, that the program was under way. . . . I signed a decree setting up a special committee and banning the program. It was only after this that experts flew out specially and stopped the work."

One of the laboratories President Yelsin referred to was the biological warfare R&D facility, in the isolated city of Stepnogorsk in Kazakhstan, established by Moscow after the Sverdlovsk debacle. It developed a new type of anthrax, three times as virulent as the Sverdlovsk strain, called Alibekov anthrax. Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov was the first deputy chief for Biopreparat, the civilian front of the Soviet biological weapons program, who developed it.

The staggering scale of the Stepnogorsk operation remained hidden until Kazakhstan won its independence after the collapse of the USSR and a U.S. team of scientists and officials visit the facility in 1995. When the order came to be given, it was capable of producing 330 tonnes of Anthrax spores in 220 days.

Yeltsin promised pensions to the families bereaved in the outbreak. A week later, on April 11th 1992, another decree pledged Russia's compliance to the 1972 bio-weapons convention. An American team was finally allowed to investigate in Sverdlovsk itself in June 1992. X rays of the victims' lungs showed classic signs of anthrax inhalation. 1950s studies had proved that inhaled anthrax could take weeks to become symptomatic. The wind patterns and patient clusters south of Compound 19 all pointed to its guilt.

"Some deaths occurred outside the hospital, at home, or even in the street or in a field. Medical personnel accompanying the emergency transport vehicles often made an initial diagnosis of pneumonia. The chest pain, which was severe enough to suggest an initial diagnosis of myocardial infarction, undoubtedly resulted from the hemorrhagic thoracic lymphadentisis and mediastinitis."

"We have now circumscribed the time of common exposure to anthrax. The number of red dots we can plot on our spot map places nearly all of the victims within a narrow plume that stretches southeast from Compound 19 to the neighborhood past the ceramics factory. . . . we have clarified the relation of the timing of animal and human deaths and believe the exposure for both was nearly simultaneous. All the data – from interviews, documents, lists, autopsies, and wind reports – now fit, like pieces of a puzzle. What we know proves a lethal plume of anthrax came from Compound 19."

Though Yeltsin promised to "clean up" the poisonous legacy of the clandestine bio-warfare program the Sverdlovsk survivors are still waiting for their increased pensions and, incredibly, in a 1998 newspaper interview, Lieutenant General Valentin Yevstigneyev, deputy director of the Russian defense ministry’s directorate for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, flatly denied the military's involvement.

*PBS Interview with Dr. Alibekov

After his defection to the west Dr. Alibekov (now known as Ken Alibek) confirmed that Compound 19 had been responsible for the "industrial" production of anthrax. The following interview was appeared on "Frontline" on PBS in the USA.

What's the truth about Sverdlovsk? What actually happened?

Now people know that there was a special military settlement in Sverdlovsk. For a little period of time that settlement was involved in research and development, and manufacturing of biological weapons. One of the main purposes of that facility was to manufacture biological weapons on a basis of anthrax and they had a lot of weapons stockpiled--hundreds of tons. They manufactured anthrax on a permanent basis. That Friday night, because of the personnel's negligence, they removed a filter from an exhaust system and didn't put it back. When a new shift came they started the technological process and ... this material went out.

On Monday morning, the new filter wasn't on?

It's very difficult to say when, but I don't believe that the installation was without a filter for such a long time. Probably they found that there was no filter in a short period of time.

But not short enough to stop anthrax spores being released?

Yes, maybe minutes, maybe an hour or hour and a half, no more.

The wind blew the anthrax spores, as I understand it, away from Sverdlovsk. If the wind had been blowing the other way back into the city of Sverdlovsk what could the death rate have been?

Dozens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands.

When the accident happened, the Soviet Union simply lied about it. Why were the Soviets so worried about that accident?

Because, first of all, the Soviet Union ... [had] signed a treaty not to conduct any type of this work. Second, if the Soviet Union admitted that it was a case of infecting people by a biological weapon, it's very difficult to imagine what kind of consequences we could expect, because even when people didn't know the real cause of that accident, people were scared. But if they knew that it was a case of people's negligence and that a military facility infected and diseased people, it's very difficult to imagine what kind of consequences [there would have been].

When you look at Sverdlovsk, when you look at some of the intelligence that was being floated even back as early as the late 70s, why do you think the U.S. did not catch on sooner that there was a huge offensive program going on?

As far as I know, the intelligence community here in the United States and in Great Britain was 100% convinced that the Soviet Union had such a program. The problem was [that] there were some scientists, some consultants who believed that the Soviet Union didn't have this program, and that the Soviet Union observed the treaty on banning biological weapons.

So the inability of certain scientists in the United States to believe the intelligence reports, in the long run, prolonged the length of the program?

When we discuss such sensitive things, we cannot rely just on the opinion of a couple of scientists or even a group of scientists. This type of analysis should be conducted openly, using watch panels, very respected scientists and representatives of the intelligence community.....The intelligence community was absolutely right when it insisted that [the U.S.] had such a problem.

Was the anthrax leak in Sverdlovsk a point where you or others in the Soviet Union thought that the program would be uncovered?

For me as a physician, I thought this type of epidemic would be very, very suspicious, because I don't remember any epidemic of anthrax with such severity ... anthrax is a disease, it doesn't cause huge epidemics. And the amount of people infected simultaneously usually is not very high: five people, ten people, maybe twenty people. Some of them would have cutaneous form or skin form of anthrax. But when we saw dozens of cases of inhalation anthrax, this situation is very suspicious and could be caused by an anthrax aerosol. It was in my opinion, a clear explanation what was the real cause of that epidemic.

If the United States had caught on at that point and made a big fuss back in 1979, what do you imagine the effect would have been?

I believe, if in 1979 this country had started pressuring the Soviet Union severely [like it did] in 1990, by the middle of 80s, this program would have been dismantled in the Soviet Union.

In this quite shocking interview Dr Alibekov revealed the extent of the Soviet Bio-Weapons programme.

During the process of production in the Soviet Union's program, how many tons of biological warfare agents were storehoused?

The Soviet Union has two main directorates responsible for developing and manufacturing biological weapons. Biological weapons were stored at the Minister of Defense facilities. For example, [the] Kirov facility was responsible for storing Plague, about 20 tons of Plague. The Zagorsk facility (now it's Sergiev Posad) was responsible for storing smallpox biological weapons, about 20 tons as well. And the Ekaterinburg facility (at that time Sverdlovsk) was responsible for continuous manufacturing [of] anthrax biological weapons. The amount of this weapon produced was hundreds of tons.'

What were the total amount of biological weapons agents storehoused?

Nobody calculated these weapons in such a way. The problem was that some weapons were stockpiled and some weapons were just prepared for stockpiling. The amount of weapons stored was dozens or even hundreds of tons. There were several facilities there that were considered mobilization capacities. They could manufacture biological weapons in case of getting a special order.

If you have the production facilities, the technology and the knowledge, do you need to storehouse biological weaponry? How does it differ from nuclear or chemical weapons?

[It] depend[s] on what kind of offensive biological concept one or another country has. If a given country wants to use biological weapons immediately in any war or military conflict, it would store biological weapons. Some countries can develop production techniques, can have mobilization capacities, and they can start manufacturing biological weapons in case of getting orders.

But in Russia, with production facilities still existing, would they have to stockpile weapons? If at some point in the future they wanted to use agents, how quickly could they produce the agents for use?

First of all, I don't believe that Russia has biological weapons stockpiled. These weapons were destroyed somewhere at the end of 80s. But if Russia does have a desire to start manufacturing biological weapons, it would take no more than two to three months to start this activity again.

Why would it be so short a period of time?

Russia has at least four military facilities that could be used for manufacturing biological weapons. These facilities have not been opened for any visits. These facilities could be considered top secret offensive facilities and they have the capability to manufacture biological weapons. In addition to these facilities, Russia continues [running] several facilities, so-called Biopreparat facilities. They were considered mobilization capacities. And we know that Russia stores all production documentation for manufacturing biological weapons. It wouldn't be a big problem to start this production activity if there is desire or if there is an order.

Which U.S. cities were targeted, as far as you know, back in the days when the Soviets had these weapons stockpiled?

Biological weapons were considered strategic weapons. The targets ... in the United States, [would be] large cities, large military bases--these type of facilities ... we can assume New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago--these type of cities.

What kind of agents were thought of as useful in this situation?

According to the Soviet Union's philosophy ... smallpox, plague and anthrax were considered strategic operational biological weapons. In future wars, if Marburg was finished, Marburg was to be used as a strategic weapon. But what was complete and ready for application were the smallpox biological weapons, plague biological weapons and anthrax biological weapons.

If, for instance, New York City had become a target, what would have been the expected mortality rates with the use of biological weaponry?

In this case, it's very easy to calculate. This work was done many years ago by an American scientist. According to this calculation, about 50 kilos of anthrax biological weapon that covers a territory with the population of about 500,000 people, would cause 100,000 deaths. I calculated, with the data we had in Sverdlovsk when the accident occurred and the amount of people dead was about 100 people, between 65-100 people. But the amount of anthrax agent released in the city of Sverdlovsk was no more than 100 grams. In this case, [with] the efficiency of these weapons, if a sufficient amount of this weapon was used, mortality rate would be hundred of thousands of people.

In New York City, with millions of people, what would one expect to see?

Depending on the type of weapons, depending on the mode of applying, but if we use the worst case scenario, probably half the population. If the entire territory of New York City was covered with sufficient amount of this weapon, the amount of people dead would be millions.

What biological agents were worked on at the time that you were involved with the program?

The completely finished and accomplished biological weapons were as follows: smallpox biological weapon, then plague biological weapon, anthrax biological weapon, Venezuelan equine encephalitis biological weapon, tularemia biological weapon, brucellosis biological weapon, and some others. In the 70s and beginning of 80s the Soviet Union started developing new biological weapons--Marburg infection biological weapon, Ebola infection biological weapon, Machupo infection, [or] Bolivian hemorrhagic biological weapon, and some others.

Why smallpox? How important was that considered to be as a biological weapon?

Yes, it's a good question, because smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980. And just immediately after, the Soviet Union government realized that nobody would have defense in the future against this agent, because it was declared [that] there was no necessity to vaccinate people any more. This weapon became one of the most important weapons, because the entire population of the Earth became absolutely vulnerable to this agent and to this weapon ... smallpox is very contagious. A relatively high mortality rate: 35-40%. And if the entire population of the Earth doesn't have immunity against this agent, possible consequences after applying these weapons would be horrible.

How could that even be considered as a weapon, with the reality of the epidemics that could occur and could get back to harm your own people?

First of all, when we are talking about strategic weapons, strategic weapons would never be used close to the territory of the country that is going to apply these weapons. Second, smallpox is very contagious. It's transmittable from person to person. Of course, the first effect would be from so-called primary aerosols, immediately after aerosolization. Then people who have been infected would start infecting other people. We know that smallpox is a very transmittable, contagious disease and it can cause epidemics or even pandemics. Smallpox is very efficient weapon because it could cause a lot of infected and dead people.

Was it assumed that before the weapon would be used, the Russian people would be vaccinated to protect them against blowback from people who traveled with it?

In my opinion, nobody cared what would happen to the Russians, because this weapon would be used just in case of, according to the Soviet Union's concept, a total war. And when we're talking about total war, of course, nobody would considered the several hundred thousands of dead Russians.

Why was the smallpox transferred from the Ivanovsky Institute in Moscow down to Vector in Koltsovo?

There was, according to the World Health Organization's decision, just two repositories: one of them in the city of Atlanta, CDC [Center for Disease Control], and another one in the city of Moscow, Ivanovsky Institute. But in the late 80s, the Soviet Union had a desire to relocate these stocks from Ivanovsky to Vector, to cover offensive biological works, because even at that time, officially Vector couldn't conduct any work with smallpox. But in reality, [they] did. At least, for that period of time, transferring smallpox stocks from Ivanovsky Institute to Vector could cover some of these works.

The main reason that it was transferred was so that it could be used in further research on biological weaponry?

At least at that time. In the beginning of 90s, when I was the first deputy chief of Biopreparat, I had several visits to the minister of health, just asking to relocate the stocks from Ivanovsky Institute to the Vector. The main reason was to develop a cover story for conducting [official] biological work at the Vector facility.

Why was research done to genetically alter smallpox?

Why was it necessary to develop a 100-megaton bomb, when the United States and the Soviet Union had 10-, 20-, 50-megaton bombs? This was just a logic of developing weapons. You know? If you've got a weapon, your next step [is] to develop a more sophisticated weapon.

Smallpox is a fine weapon. But it could be more fine, just by adding some foreign genes. In this case ... I am asking the scientific community here in the United States, in the world, just watch such works very carefully, because in many cases, these works are conducted in ... I call them dark zones. We cannot say when we look at one another's work, what is the real purpose of this work. This could be used for developing new agents, for developing new weapons. This is a very sensitive area and situation. We need to be very careful and cautious.

What are dark zones?

I call the area [a dark zone] when the result obtained could be used for defensive purposes and could be used for offensive purposes. Let's analyze this situation: the genetic alteration of vaccinia [cowpox] virus. In many cases, you would never find any publication about genetic alteration of smallpox virus, because when we conduct the work with smallpox virus, it's very dangerous and you need to explain why you are genetically altering such virus. ... [however] smallpox virus (variola major) and vaccinia virus are very close genetically. When you conduct genetic engineering work with a vaccinia virus, the result of such a work would be applied to variola major. When we conduct this work, we cannot say what could be the real purpose or real result of this work. But some results obtained when you conduct work with vaccinia virus, could be applied for smallpox virus.

Was there ever a fear, during the time that you were there, that the U.S. was going to discover the program and therefore bring pressure against the Soviet government?

Somewhere in 1986-1987, we started feeling some pressure. We could understand what was the primary source for this pressure. We were asked by the government of the Soviet Union to analyze whether or not it would be possible to open some facilities [without] revealing the real purposes of these facilities. We conducted this work for several years. And a lot of scientists, a lot of leaders didn't believe it would be possible to open, because these facilities were clearly offensive facilities. But in 1989, we started feeling severe pressure from the United States and Great Britain. We were forced to open our facilities because in 1989, the United States and Great Britain realized that the Soviet Union had a very sophisticated and powerful offensive program. When these countries started pressuring the Soviet Union very hard, it was a kind of starting point for the destruction, for the dismantling of this program.

What do you think the ramifications are of the long-term program that did exist--the amount of material and the amount of knowledge that was created?

The problem now is [that] practically all the countries in the world understand that biological weapons are a very serious threat ... a lot of countries are trying to develop biological weapons, and for these countries, the Soviet Union was some kind of role model for developing these weapons, because the Soviet Union was able to develop one of the most powerful and sophisticated programs in the world. A lot of countries are following the Soviet Union's program. I strongly believe that some Asian countries, Arabic countries ... are trying to develop their own offensive program. In my opinion, for them, this country (I mean the Soviet Union) was some kind of example, some kind of role model for these programs' development.

Besides being a role model, what about the issue of actual information and/or samples from the stockpiles that existed? Should we also fear the transfer of knowledge and/or actual agents?

I'm very doubtful that the Russian government would sell any equipment (I mean sophisticated equipment), technologies, or strains to any other country. Thousands of scientists who were involved in developing biological weapons are now under-employed and unemployed, and this is the biggest threat. If you are under-employed and unemployed, in some cases, you will try to sell your knowledge, your expertise to people or to countries that are interested in such weapons.

In 1991, what were your impressions when you came and toured the U.S. facilities of what had once been an offensive program?

First of all, before I came, I strongly believed that this country [U.S.] had such a program. But when I came and I saw the abandoned facilities, and I knew that Soviet Union intelligence services didn't have any information regarding any other facilities but these ones. When I saw that everything was abandoned, of course, for me it was great that this country didn't have such a program any more.

When you went back to the Soviet Union, is that what you reported?

When I came back, and when I was asked to prepare my personal report about this program's existence, I said, "No" because I didn't believe that this country had such a program... within two weeks I resigned commission and because I was a colonel of [Russian] army, in January of 1992, I resigned from the Russian army. And in February, I left all my scientific and administrative positions and quit.

You were asked to lie about what you saw?

I'll give you this example. General Yevstigneyev, who was in charge of this 15th Directorate, and a part of our visiting group formed by the 15th Directorate, said directly to his subordinates, "If you don't find any evidence that could be considered this country offensive program existence, you'll be fired."

Where is he today?

He was a major general. Now he's lieutenant general. He has received a promotion, and now he's in charge of first deputy chief of the Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Directorate of the Minister of Defense. All of the people who were responsible for research and developing and manufacturing such weapons, are now in that place. Former colonels became generals and they continue managing these facilities and enterprises.

The fact that the general, who told you to lie or else you would lose your job, is now in charge of the entire program in the Soviet Union--is that not somewhat worrisome?

That's what I say all the time. Just take a look at Russia ... the country itself and this program. The people who were in charge of this program continue working in this area. All the colonels who were in charge of these facilities became generals. All the documentation is stored at some places to manufacture biological weapons. All these facilities are still top secret facilities. And in my opinion, until Russia opens these facilities and reveals everything regarding this program, we cannot believe this country.

Original Documents here

Recently published book by Jeanne Guillemin

PDF report by Jeanne Guillemin

Biohazard by Ken Alibek (Dr. Alibekov) As the cover says 'The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World - Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran it'.

"A hundred kilograms of anthrax spores would, in optimal atmospheric conditions, kill up to three million people in any of the densely populated metropolitan areas of the United States...A single SS-18 [missile] could wipe out the population of a city as large as New York."


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