plague war
Interview: Dr.Matthew Meselson
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Dr. Matthew Meselson Ph.D. is a molecular biologist who has written extensively about biological agents and is the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences in Harvard University's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
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The Sverdlovsk incident was a turning point - immediately the Ukraine and the United States started complaining to the Soviets and asking for more information. Why was it so difficult to analyze exactly what had taken place there?

We had no conclusive evidence. But we knew that here was an anthrax operating in the very same part of the city as a military microbiological facility. So, just on the basis of probability, it seemed likely that this was the fault or the activity of the military base. On the other hand, there were certain things that we didn't understand. For example, there were cases that showed up as late as six weeks after the first cases, and we had thought that the incubation period for anthrax was only a few days. Well, it would be easy to see how if it was contaminated meat, and that was the way in which gastrointestinal anthrax had occurred and still does occur, particularly in Russia and the Ukraine even today, it could take six weeks because you put the meat in the refrigerator and some of it you don't eat for two weeks. So we didn't understand everything. We thought that it was likely that this was an airborne event, but we weren't absolutely certain.

It wasn't until we took a team of independent scientists ... and went to Sverdlovsk and we interviewed 43 families and asked them where the person who they had lost ... worked, where they were in the daytime. Then when we plotted those locations on a map, they all fell on a very narrow straight line, a very narrow zone, and it turned out that the wind was blowing in that very direction on one of the days just before the first cases. [The] line went down 50 kilometers south of the military facility along which there were villages where animals had died of anthrax and one end of this zone was the military facility. That answered it unequivocally.

Yeltsin had just before said that it was the fault of the government, but he didn't say what his evidence was. We know what his evidence was and it was very poor. He may have known ... had other sources, but the documents that went to him, we'd seen them, and they were very flimsy. So it wasn't until we actually could go in and do epidemiology ... I, myself, did not have my mind made up and I think the team that I took also went there open minded. But when we finished our work, it was very clear.

It took over a decade to come up with the final results. Did we lose ground by the amount of time that was spent arguing whether the Soviets had a program or not?

Yes, I'm sure we lost ground in the sense that they continued and increased and built these very large facilities, which the present managers say they never used. They were standby [facilities], but nevertheless they were huge facilities. We know of one for sure because it's not in Russia anymore, it's in Kazakhstan, and we can go there. So in the sense that they went right ahead and created a very large base for an offensive program.

Do you then feel to some extent duped by the Soviets because of their arguments throughout this period of time that they were obeying the treaty, that they had no need of an offensive program?

No. I think that I approach these matters in the way that I think a technical person should. Political people have to make a judgment on the basis on what evidence is available as to what the right course of action is. Technical people should say, "Here is a situation as I understand it, and it is possible, but not proven that, dot-dot-dot." I never said that the Soviets didn't have an offensive program. What I said, in particular, with regard to the Sverdlovsk facility, and what I wrote and what I testified before the Congress, was that it was plausible that it was due to bad meat, but that they should admit independent, private scientists. Beginning in early 1980s, I attempted to bring private scientists there with the assistance of my contacts in our intelligence community, which had told us exactly where to go and what to look for. But it wasn't until 1992 that I was able to bring them there. And I've always, very energetically, said that it is essential that the Soviets, and now the Russians, admit independent investigators to come and look, that transparency is the only guarantee. But it is true that I did argue, and I think justifiably that at that time, the evidence we had as to what caused the accident at Sverdlovsk was not yet clear. And there were people in our own government who thought the same. In hindsight, we now know that it was an airborne accident. We still don't know what they were doing there. They have still not told us. Boris Yeltsin didn't say what the cause of it was. And our investigations only show that it was airborne. We were unable to get inside the facility.

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