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 (now
called Ekaterinburg), roughly 850 miles east of Moscow. The first victim died
after four days; the 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. 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 - 1992- that President Boris Yeltsin
admitted, without going into details, that the anthrax outbreak was the result
of military activity at the facility. During those thirteen years, while an
intense debate raged within the international scientific and intelligence
communities on whether the Russians were telling the truth, the Soviet Union
continued its offensive biological warfare program unabated.
Around the time Yeltsin admitted the military facility was responsible for the
incident, 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 and included Professor Matt Meselson.
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.
According to FRONTLINE's interview with Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, former
first deputy chief for Biopreparat (the civilian part of the Soviet biological
weapons program), the anthrax airborne leak had been caused by workers at the
military facility who forgot to replace a filter in an exhaust system. The
mistake was realized shortly after, but by then some anthrax spores were released.
Alibekov says if the wind had been in the opposite direction that
day--toward the city of Sverdlovsk--the death rate could have been in the
hundreds of thousands.
To this day, Western inspectors have not been allowed to visit this military
Meselson, Matthew; Guillemin, Jeanne; Hugh-Jones, Martin; Langmuir, Alexander;
Popova, Ilona; Shelokov, Alexis; Yampolskaya, Olga. "The Sverdlovsk Anthrax
Outbreak of 1979." Science, November 18, 1994: 1202-1208.
Venter, Al J. "Sverdlovsk Outbreak: A Portent of Disaster." Jane's
Intelligence Review, May 1, 1998: 36