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Anthrax Deaths Tied to Soviet Lab : Biological warfare: Finding by U.S., Russian researchers raises possibility that international treaty was broken in 1979 outbreak that killed 68 people.

November 18, 1994|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

An unusual anthrax epidemic that killed 68 people in the former Soviet Union began when the deadly spores escaped from a covert military microbiology facility, Russian and American researchers have concluded.

Their work, based on two years of interviews with survivors of the 1979 outbreak in Sverdlovsk and unique access to Russian public health records, raises the possibility that one of the most controversial chapters in Cold War history arose from experiments that violated an international accord forbidding biological weapons.

The Sverdlovsk epidemic is the largest documented anthrax outbreak of its kind. Thousands may have been infected by rare airborne anthrax disease spores, which can cause high fever, convulsions, lung lesions and, in severe cases, rapid death.

In an international debate over the incident, U.S. officials at the time charged that the outbreak resulted from an accident at a military plant that was mass-producing the anthrax bacterium. Soviet and Russian officials argued for 10 years that the townspeople had been infected by eating diseased meat or other causes.

In research made public today in the journal Science, Russian and U.S. scientists confirmed that the infection was spread by the wind, pinpointed the day the anthrax spores escaped and traced the outbreak to its source: a military microbiology facility known simply as Compound 19, which U.S. scientists suspect is still in operation.

"This is definitive proof," said Harvard University biologist Matthew Meselson, who led the research team.

A U.S. diplomatic official in Washington, who asked not to be identified, noted that the formal treaty violation is still an open issue. He said he hoped that the new evidence concerning the origin of the epidemic would "encourage further openness by the Russian government."

Several countries, including England, experimented with anthrax as a weapon in the past, but all stocks of military microbes were destroyed under the provisions of a 100-nation arms control treaty in 1972, experts said.

The United States, Soviet Union and other governments that signed the treaty reserved the right to produce such lethal microbes and viruses to conduct research into defensive measures, such as vaccines and protective clothing.

Indeed, U.S. Defense Department spending on genetic engineering research into such epidemic weapons as anthrax, Rift Valley fever, Lhassa fever and Q fever increased sixfold during the 1980s to $90 million a year in 1990.

The Compound 19 laboratory may have been performing such experiments when a biological weapon exploded or an accidental release occurred through an air filter, the scientists said.

"The same facilities and the same people are to some extent still there. We would like to know what they are doing," Meselson said. "We need to know whether the work there was a perfectly legitimate defensive thing or weapons work."

Meselson, who first investigated the incident as a consultant for the Central Intelligence Agency, helped debunk earlier charges that the Soviet Union had waged biological warfare with so-called "yellow rain" in Laos, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Until recently, he was a leading critic of U.S. charges about the Sverdlovsk epidemic.

Despite the cooperation of the current Russian government, the team found that facts were hard to come by.

When the outbreak first became public 15 years ago, the KGB confiscated the medical records and autopsy reports. The city was placed under military quarantine. Researchers believe that the Soviet military authorities concealed the cause of the outbreak from local public health officials and doctors trying to treat the sick and dying.

But during two visits last year to the city--now known by its pre-revolutionary name of Ekaterinburg--researchers found local families eager to cooperate. The local chief of hospital pathology also provided key medical evidence she had concealed from the security squads.

"The families did not know why their loved ones had died," said Jeanne Guillemin, a Boston College sociologist who conducted many of the interviews. "I can't think of a single interview in which they did not cry. I cannot think of an interview in which we did not cry."

Russian President Boris Yeltsin has acknowledged that the outbreak stemmed from "our military developments." But Russian officials overseeing chemical and biological weapons disarmament still deny that the infection originated at the military lab.

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