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Sverdlovsk anthrax leak

Sverdlovsk anthrax leak is an incident when spores of anthrax were accidentally released from a military facility in the city of Sverdlovsk (formerly, and now again, Yekaterinburg) 900 miles east of Moscow on April 2, 1979. This accident is sometimes called "biological Chernobyl" [1]. The ensuing outbreak of the disease resulted in 94 people becoming infected, 64 of whom died over a period of six weeks. There was an estimated 67% fatality rate, which tripled the Soviet Union's yearly average morbidity from anthrax. The cause of the outbreak had for years been denied by the Soviet Union, which blamed the deaths on intestinal exposure due to the consumption of tainted meat from the area, and subcutaneous exposure due to butchers handling the tainted meat. All medical records of the victims had been removed in order to obscure the symptoms consistent with respiratory exposure, to avoid revelations of serious violations of the Biological Weapons Convention, and to hide embarrassing inadequacies in the Soviet health care system.


Background information

The closed city of Sverdlovsk had been major production center of Soviet military-industrial complex since World War II. It produced tanks, nuclear rockets and other armaments. A major nuclear accident happened in this region in 1958, when a military reactor was damaged, resulting in spread of radioactive dust over thousand square kilometers. The biological weapons facility in Sverdlovsk was built after the World War II, using documentation captured in Manchuria from Japanese germ warfare program [1]

The strain of anthrax produced in military Compound 19 near Sverdlovsk was the most powerful in the Soviet arsenal ("Anthrax 836"). It has been isolated as a result of another anthrax leak accident that happened in 1953 in the city of Kirov. A leak from a bacteriological facility contaminated the city sewer system. In 1956, biologist Vladimir Sizov found a more virulent strain in rodents captured in this area. This strain was planned to arm warheads for the SS-18 ICBM, which would target Western cities. [1]

The accident

The produced anthrax culture had to be dried to produce a fine powder for use as an aerosol. Large filters over the exhaust pipes were the only barriers between the anthrax dust and the outside environment. On the last Friday of March 1979, a technician removed a clogged filter, while drying machines were temporarily turned down. He left a written notice but did not write this down in the logbook as he was supposed to do. The supervisor of the next shift did not find anything unusual in logbook, and turned the machines on. In a few hours, someone found that the filter was missing and reinstalled it. The incident was reported to military command, but local and city officials were not immediately informed. Boris Yeltsin, a local Communist Party boss at this time, was denied access to the secret facility [1]

All workers of a ceramic plant across the street fell ill during next few days. Almost all of them died in a week. The death toll was at least 105, but no one knows the number because all hospital records and other evidence were destroyed by the KGB, according to former Biopreparat deputy director Kenneth Alibek [1].


In the 1980s, there was vigorous international debate and speculation as to whether the outbreak was natural or an accidental exposure. If accidental, there was discussion of whether it represented violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. A number of small investigations launched by Russian scientists in the years immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union re-opened the case in a number of newspaper articles.

A team of Western inspectors lead by Professor Matthew Meselson of Harvard finally gained access to the region in 1992, and determined that all of the victims had been living directly downwind at the time of the release of the spores via aerosol. Livestock in the area were also affected. It was revealed around this time that the accident was caused by the non-replacement of a filter on an exhaust at the facility, and though the problem was quickly rectified it was too late to prevent a release. Had the winds been blowing in the direction of the city at that time, it could have resulted in the pathogen being spread to hundreds of thousands of people. The military facility remains closed to inspection. Professor Meselson's original contention for many years had been that the outbreak was a natural one and that the Soviet authorities were not lying when they disclaimed having an active offensive bio-warfare program, but the information uncovered in the investigation left no room for doubt. [2] Meselson's wife, Jeanne Guillemin (who had participated in the investigation), detailed the events in a 1999 book. [3]


Russian Prime Minister Egor Gaidar issued a decree to begin conversion of Compound 19 in 1992. However, the facility continue its work. Not a single journalist was allowed to the premises since 1992; about 200 soldiers with Rottweiler dogs still patrol the complex; the classified activities were moved underground, and several new laboratories have been constructed and equipped to work with highly dangerous pathogens. [4] One of their current subjects was reportedly Bacillus anthracis strain H-4. Its virulence and antibiotic resistance have been dramatically increased using genetic engineering [4].

Popular culture references

  • Robin Cook used the Sverdlovsk anthrax leak as a plot device in his novel Vector. In the novel, a Russian immigrant named Yuri Davydov works with a neo-Nazi group to plan an anthrax attack on New York City. Yuri learned to develop anthrax while he was working at the Biopreparat facility in Sverdlovsk. He was there when the leak happened and his mother was one of the victims.
  • There is an allusion to the Sverdlovsk anthrax leak in the FPS Soldier of Fortune II - Double Helix (made by a character who worked at the Biopreparat facility of Sverdlovsk).
  • Greg Bear makes reference to the Sverdlovsk anthrax leak in Quantico, a novel about genetically engineered pathogens and FBI agents trying to stop their release.
  • Richard Preston tells the story of Sverdlovsk in the chapter 'Invisible History (II).' from his book The Cobra Event.


  1. ^ a b c d e Kenneth Alibek and S. Handelman. Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World - Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran it. 1999. Delta (2000) ISBN 0-385-33496-6 [1].
  2. ^ Meselson, M.J., J. Guillemin, M. Hugh-Jones, et al (1994), "The Sverdlovsk Anthrax Outbreak of 1979" (pdf), Science, 266, no. 5188:1202-8.
  3. ^ Guillemin, Jeanne (1999). Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak, Berkeley, University of California Press. 
  4. ^ a b The Russian Biological Weapons Program: Vanished or Disappeared? by Dany Shoham and Ze'ev Wolfson, Critical Reviews in Microbiology, Volume 30, Number 4, October-December 2004, pp. 241-261.

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Sverdlovsk_anthrax_leak". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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