Sverdlovsk anthrax leak

Forty years ago, on April 2nd, 1979, there was a major leak of deadly anthrax spores from the Soviet biological warfare facility at Military Compound 19 on the edge of Sverdlovsk. The strain of the pathogen, Anthrax 836, was the deadliest. For effective military use it was dried to a powder that could be dispersed as aerosols. These could arm warheads for their SS-18 intercontinental missiles to target American cities.

The filters that kept the anthrax dust from leaking into the environment had to be cleaned with the drying machines turned off. A subsequent investigation found that a technician had removed a filter, leaving a note to that effect. The note was not seen when the machines were later switched back on, and it was several hours before the mistake was spotted. During that time, anthrax dust leaked from the plant and was carried by the wind.

Estimates put the number of people killed at over 100, together with unknown numbers of livestock. They were all downwind of the release. Had the wind been blowing in the opposite direction, most of the city’s population could have died. An official cover-up pointed to tainted meat as the cause of the fatalities, but all medical records of those affected were removed.

The existence of the facility was in direct violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, and it was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that the incident was investigated by an international team of inspectors. Their 1992 findings tallied with a release of anthrax downwind from the site.

Despite the events of 40 years ago, the facility still exists, with its work moved underground. Reports say they have made anthrax more deadly still through genetic engineering. Even though the Soviet Union is no more, one of its KGB lieutenant colonels is now Russia’s president, and authorizes continued work on internationally banned biological agents. The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter by GRU agents in Britain last year with the deadly nerve agent Novichok shows that Russia continues to develop these banned pathogens, and is prepared to release then on civilian populations. A country that shows so little regard for international agreements and conventions should be treated with considerable reserve when treaties are proposed. The West might start by demanding that facilities such as those at Sverdlovsk be dismantled and inspected before any deals can be agreed.