plague war
Interview: Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov
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Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov was the former First Deputy Director of Biopreparat from 1988 to 1992. Biopreparat was the Soviet Union's biological-weapons program. Alibekov defected from the Soviet Union and moved to Washington, DC in 1992.
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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].

Nobody seems to know whether that strain of anthrax was antibiotic resistant or not.

It was a regular strain used to manufacture biological weapons.

It wasn't antibiotic resistant?


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.

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