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Why anthrax is again a cause for concern

New insights into an old incident reveal the magnitude of the danger inherent in biological weapons

Editor's note: On 15/9/17, an envelope containing white powder was discovered at the Israeli consulate in New York

Bacillus anthracis bacteria. Source: Arthur Friedlander, 1995
Bacillus anthracis bacteria. source: Arthur Friedlander.

By Paul Kayam, David Walker, Raymond Zielinskis, the article is published with the permission of Scientific American Israel and the Ort Israel Network 18.05.2017

  • Dozens of people died in 1979 from anthrax in the city of Sverdlovsk in Asian Russia. Only later did it become clear that the disease had broken out as a result of an accident at a secret Soviet biological weapons facility.
  • The bacterium that causes anthrax, Bacillus anthracis, is particularly suitable for use in unconventional weapons. Certain parts of the Soviet nuclear weapons development program were dismantled, and their dismantling was verified in the 90s.
  • New revelations indicate new reasons to fear that the Russian government is renewing its biological weapons program, thereby violating the Biological Weapons Convention, which was first signed in 1972.

April 2, 1979 released into the air Mysterious, invisible powder from a smokestack that rose 25 meters above a Soviet military camp located approximately 1,400 kilometers east of Moscow. During the following weeks, at least 80 residents of the city of Sverdlovsk, today, fell ill Yekaterinburg, in a disease whose symptoms initially looked like flu symptoms. However, after a few days the patients developed severe internal bleeding and other medical problems, 68 of them, and perhaps even more, died.

Only a few at the military base called "Facility 19" knew what happened. Due to a missing air filter, bacterial spores were released from the chimney, originating from military scientific research conducted in a secret production facility that operated inside the camp. The spores were bacterial Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that cause the disease known as Anthrax (Gahelet) and are found in nature in many areas around the world. But these particular spores have been crushed to just the right size to make it easier to inhale them into the lungs of humans and animals, the organ where the bacteria can do the most damage and cause the most deaths.

After entering the body the spores germinate and the bacteria that develop from them get their characteristic switch shape. They begin to multiply, spread into the bloodstream and attack various tissues. People who inhale Bacillus anthracis spores and are not treated in time with appropriate antibiotics usually die within a few days. But the Soviet military did not reveal the truth about the outbreak to anyone, not even to the local health authorities who might have been able to save more lives if they had information about the causes of the mysterious disease.

Despite great efforts on the part of the KGB to keep the incident a secret, news of it eventually leaked to the outside world in the fall of 1979, shocking Western and other intelligence officials. The West did not know at all that the Soviet Union was developing materials for biological warfare, an activity that was a blatant violation of a treaty that prohibits the development, production, storage and use of biological weapons. More than a hundred countries, including the Soviet Union and the United States, signed in 1972 the convention known as Biological Weapons Convention. Nevertheless, the USA chose not to file an official complaint against the Soviet Union in accordance with the terms of the treaty.

Since in the 70s the genetic engineering revolution had already begun in several other countries, the Western intelligence organizations estimated at the time that the Soviet researchers in Sverdlovsk had engineered the Bacillus anthracis bacteria to be more deadly than usual. Only 37 years later it became clear that this hypothesis was not correct. The only improvements made were the addition of some chemicals and other small changes that helped the spores disperse more easily.

The Soviet Union, for its part, finally admitted that several people had died from anthrax in and around Sverdlovsk, but denied that anything unusual had happened. The real cause of the tragedy, according to the official claim, was an outbreak of intestinal anthrax caused by slaughtering animals infected with anthrax bacteria that are also found in nature and eating their flesh. This claim was later disproved, after international experts were allowed to examine samples from corpses preserved by local pathologists.

In 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin finally admitted that the Soviet Union had indeed built and operated a large program to research and manufacture biological weapons materials. He did claim that he ordered the program to be shut down immediately, but according to secret documents that have been declassified in the meantime, it became clear that the Russian army continued some of the projects conducted within it, but hid them from the eyes of the civilian leadership. In any case, the stated policy changed once more after Vladimir Putin became president in 1999. Now the new leadership claimed that neither the Soviet Union nor the Russian government that succeeded it had ever operated an offensive biological weapons program: if any research had been conducted, past or present, it was solely for defensive purposes, not to attack but only to defend against attack, an activity permitted under The terms of the Biological Weapons Convention.

Today, when Russia is re-establishing its power on the world stage, it is more important to appreciate and understand the lessons of that accident in Sverdlovsk. Additional investigations during the decades that have passed since then, by us and by others, have shown that it is not particularly difficult for countries (or terrorist organizations) with a modest bio-industrial capacity to develop programs for the development of biological weapons and to hide them. Although it canceled its biological weapons program in the early 70s, the US continues to drag its feet instead of trying to get other countries to do the same.

Deadly spores

Under natural conditions, anthrax was mostly a problem for shepherds and people who processed wool and hides. But not long after researchers in the 19th century discovered the bacterium that causes the disease, military personnel realized that this disease generator could be used to develop a new and incredibly deadly type of weapon.

At the end of the 19th century, the German scientist Robert Koch (often called the "Father of Bacteriology" due to his work on biological pathogens) the first to prove that a particular bacterium (Bacillus anthracis) causes a particular disease (anthrax) based on experiments he conducted in his apartment laboratory. A few years later the French researcher developed Louis Pasteur (the father of the theory of bacteria) an effective vaccine against it.

Koch showed that the bacteria he discovered take on an elongated, switch-like shape when they are in an environment suitable for rapid reproduction, such as in the moist and nutrient-rich internal organs of animals. But in arid environments, the bacteria become hard spores, which are almost impossible to destroy, which are able to remain dormant for a long time. When Koch injected these spores into healthy mice, the spores became active bacteria, causing disease and killing the animals.

Early detection of anthrax and early treatment of the disease are essential to the survival of those who contract the bacteria. The death rate from untreated infections depends on the parts of the body where the spores reach: without appropriate medical treatment, inhalation of a few spores into the lungs can be fatal. The death rate from untreated skin infections is about 10%, and the death rate from intestinal infections is unknown, but estimated to be 25-60%.

Unconventional means of warfare have clear advantages. The spores of the bacteria that cause anthrax can be stored for years in a dry state and frozen. This allows them to be produced and stockpiled on an industrial scale long before they are used against soldiers on the battlefield. Moreover, if the spores reach the soil, it remains contaminated for decades and severely damages the enemy's ability to raise cattle, sheep and other livestock on the contaminated soil.

Anthrax that reaches the body through the respiratory tract has another advantage in the eyes of all those who want to sow not only death but also terror in the civilian population: at first it is easy to misidentify it. Its first symptoms are mostly mild. They include high fever, fatigue and muscle aches reminiscent of the flu or pneumonia. A few days later, the patients suddenly also develop shortness of breath, their lips turn blue, and fluid begins to accumulate in their chest. At this point, usually, it is no longer possible to prevent their death. Autopsies on the bodies of people who died from the disease reveal characteristic patterns of internal bleeding in the lymph nodes near the lungs and in the tissues surrounding the brain.

the accident

Foreigners were never allowed to come through the gates of Facility 19, certainly not to enter the Institute for Scientific Research in Microbiology located inside it, where the accident occurred. But over the past decades, and especially since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, we and other researchers have pieced together the pieces of evidence regarding the accident into some kind of course of events. We conducted many interviews with scientists, doctors and technicians who worked in Sverdlovsk, or were colleagues of those who worked within the institute. In the past we have already published many of the facts presented here and so did some Soviet defectors.

Based on the information we have, we believe that the Soviet biological weapons program began as early as 1928. At its peak, in the late 80s, it employed 60 people. Bacillus anthracis was soon one of the most important pathogens in the program. The program's researchers found out that this is a bacterium that can easily be turned into a weapon, that is, produce it in a stable manner that will allow its widespread distribution.

When a military laboratory was first established in 1949 on a site previously used as an infantry school near Sverdlovsk, the facility was still far from the city limits. But 15 years later, the city has already grown and spread around the secret facility. Despite its proximity to the civilian population, the Soviet Ministry of Defense decided in the 60s to develop the facility so that it would be possible to produce tons of Bacillus anthracis spores, quantities that would enable a permanent biological weapons program to be launched. (Today we know that similar production facilities, which were later dismantled, were also established in the 50s in Arkansas in the USA.)

In a four-story building in Sverdlovsk, the Soviets installed fermentation vessels for growing Bacillus anthracis as well as drying equipment designed to force the bacteria to form spores. These are fairly standard steps in any industrial facility where living organisms are produced. The real innovation was in these steps: certain chemicals (we still don't know which ones) were added to the spores to prevent them from sticking together into large clumps that make it difficult to inhale them into the lung cavity. The products of this step were dried once more, and the dried material was ground into a fine powder capable of penetrating deeply into the lungs. Finally, we stored the finished product in stainless steel containers.

Inevitably, these drying and grinding processes caused the spread of deadly spores throughout the building. For their personal protection, the workers wore bulky suits to protect against hazardous substances, but the air inside the facility also had to be filtered before it could be released to the outside world through the ventilation system. The solution was quite simple: the polluted air coming out of each drying facility, for example, was passed through a set of filters to remove large particles (like normal dust) and small particles like anthrax spores.

Deadly bacteria: colonies of Bacillus anthracis grown on an agar medium in the laboratory. Source: US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Deadly bacteria: colonies of Bacillus anthracis grown on an agar medium in the laboratory. source: US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Wikimedia.

At one point on April 2, 1979, while the dryers were not operating, day shift workers at the production unit removed two filters to test their performance. The staff members then claimed that they informed the operations center that that particular dryer should not be used until the filters were put back in place. But for some reason, the message did not reach the night shift personnel, who later began to run the normal production and drying cycle. Because some of the filters were missing, another filter clogged, burst, and caused a sudden increase in air pressure in the air purification system. One of the workers immediately noticed the change, and 30 or 40 people on the night shift rushed to shut down the system. But the production process was a complex process and the workers could not stop it immediately. It was not until three hours later that it stopped completely, and during those three hours an unknown quantity of spores was released unhindered through the chimney.

After it became clear to the men of the night shift what had happened, the head of the shift reported the accident to the commander of Facility 19, General V. V. Mikhailov. The commander informed the heads of the Ministry of Defense in Moscow about this, and they ordered him to keep the matter a secret. After that, the KGB confiscated all the material evidence and all the post-mortem reports that were done on the victims.

Although no one knows how many spores were released from Facility 19 during the accident, some experts later estimated that the incident released half a kilogram to one kilogram of contaminated material, containing several milligrams to one gram of spores. If the spores were completely essential and if their distribution was extensive, they could have infected hundreds of thousands of the 1.2 million residents of Sverdlovsk, who had no idea that they were exposed to such a danger. Fortunately, the winds at those hours did not blow towards the urban center but carried the spores over less populated areas.

following the accident

Slowly we understood more clearly how the basic biology of the particular strain of Bacillus anthracis bacteria that caused the tragedy in Sverdlovsk works. In the 90s, for example, a team of experts led by the researcher Matthew of Salson from Harvard University two different medical and epidemiological investigations in Sverdlovsk.

Advances in biotechnology have also allowed researchers to more fully analyze tissue samples from the bodies of the victims of the incident. Russian doctors gave international teams access to these samples during the 90s, when there was a higher degree of cooperation.

One of us (Walker) accompanied Melson on the first trip and met with local pathologists in order to better understand the incident. After that one of them, Lev Greenberg, brought tissue samples from the victims (when they are well preserved in formalin and wrapped in paraffin) to the USA for further tests. Another one of us (Kim) was involved in extracting DNA from the samples together with Paul Jackson who then worked inUS National Laboratory in Los Alamos. The findings confirmed that the cause of death of the victims was indeed anthrax. Later studies by other scientists discovered a unique genetic signature of the bacterial strain from Sverdlovsk, known as B. anthracis 836.

With the help of this fingerprint, researchers can now trace the spread of bacteria of this strain around the world. This knowledge allowed the researchers (of whom it exists) to determine in 2001 thatAnthrax envelope attack In the US, which claimed the lives of five people, did not contain bacteria originating from Sverdlovsk. But then only small parts of the genome of the accident bacteria were still known, and many questions remained unanswered.

Finally, in 2015, technological advances allowed Kev and others to reconstruct the complete genomes of the bacteria taken from the tissue samples of two Sverdlovsk anthrax victims. The bacteria in both samples turned out to be identical to each other, and that they originated from B. Anthracis 836. The genetic report, published in 2016, showed that the bacteria from this source belong to a well-known group called "Trans-Eurasia". Also, the researchers did not find any evidence of any genetic engineering to increase the violence of the bacteria, to improve its resistance to antibiotics, or to reduce its response to vaccines that protect against it. In other words: the scientists of the Soviet army found and developed a bacteria most suitable for their purpose that was previously, in its natural state, deadly enough to be used as a weapon.

Everything we've learned about the material from Sverdlovsk should also serve as an important reminder that the best way to minimize mental damage from anthrax attacks is to act before the spores are even distributed. Although the American government has spent billions of dollars on research in the field of defense against biological threats, it still has difficulty coordinating the activities carried out in different agencies, each of which has its own tasks and goals, and determining the correct order of priorities. The only vaccine available in the US, which trials have shown can prevent the development of the disease after exposure to bacillus anthracis, must be given in several injections over several months, after which patients must continue to receive regular booster doses.

No one knows if there are still any bacteria left that originated from the strain produced in the Soviet Union. In accordance with the agreements between the USA, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, many tons of material containing spores were sterilized, and some of the production facilities in the former Soviet republics were converted to civilian use in the 90s, under the watchful eye of international scientists. But no foreign group has yet been allowed into three Russian Defense Ministry institutes and five civilian "anti-epidemic" institutes in Russia, which have played a role in the research and production of biological weapons materials.

Since 2003, the US State Department has issued nine arms control reports, all of which conclude that Russia may be supporting activities that violate the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The reports do not include details that corroborate these allegations (the information is assumed to be classified). But there are plenty of reasons for concern. In which visible satellite photographs show that in certain buildings in Facility 19, new equipment that looks like ventilation units was installed, and that additional buildings were added to the facility. Moreover, in 2012 Putin published an article in a Russian newspaper in which he wrote that "weapon systems based on new principles (radiation, geophysical principles, waves, genetics, psychophysical principles and other technologies)" are expected to appear in the future. The Defense Minister then claimed that his office had made progress towards these goals. Finally, another related move was Putin's avoidance in 2015 of renewing the almost 25-year cooperation between the US and Russia on dismantling the nuclear weapons stockpile.

Despite these worrisome overt signals (and top secret information that may be in the possession of Western governments), as far as can be seen, recent US administrations have not confronted the Russian government or sought clarification on possible violations of the BWC, nor does the current administration seem likely to do so. this. But the lack of any action on the part of the US government could actually be giving a green light to the development of a sophisticated biological weapon against which other countries would have no good means of defense.

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