Wastes of War
A Puzzle of Epidemic Proportions
By David Hoffman
"No," she replied. But overnight, between April 5 and 6, five people suddenly died at Ilyenko's hospital. People were stumbling into hospitals and clinics with high fevers, headaches, coughs, vomiting, chills and chest pains. Eventually at least 66 people died, and possibly more, never knowing the real reasons why.
It was the beginning of one of the strangest and most horrifying episodes of the Cold War. At the southern end of this city, then known as Sverdlovsk, an epidemic of deadly anthrax disease was spreading through homes and factories. Soviet authorities blamed the outbreak on contaminated meat.
But two pathologists came to believe something else was happening. In the next few weeks, they carried out dozens of autopsies and found the anthrax bacteria in lungs and lymph nodes of those who had died, indicating it had been carried through the air, not by contaminated meat.
The victims were all downwind from a top-secret, walled compound that was a Soviet biological warfare research center. The pathologists suspected, and whispered to each other, that the epidemic might have been caused by the secret research. But in the Soviet days, they did not dare speak openly.
Today, the anthrax epidemic remains the subject of mystery and official obfuscation seven years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a story that casts light on what some suspect may be continued Russian efforts to preserve a biological weapons capability.
Most analysts in the West long ago concluded that the Sverdlovsk victims died of an accidental release of anthrax bacteria from the secret weapons laboratory. A few Russian doctors, health officials and a Soviet defector also have pointed to the military compound as the source. But the official Soviet explanation, that the epidemic was caused by contaminated meat and not the laboratory, is still publicly defended by some Russian officials.
President Boris Yeltsin, who at the time of the epidemic was the Communist Party head of Sverdlovsk, said in May 1992 that "the KGB admitted that our military developments were the cause." But Yeltsin has never elaborated.
"The history, next April, will be 20 years old," said Lev Grinberg, one of the two pathologists on the scene when the epidemic began. "Unfortunately, as of today, we have more questions than answers."
If the Sverdlovsk emission was in fact a biological weapon, it would be a violation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which banned the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling and retention of germ weapons for offensive purposes. Both the Soviet Union and the United States were signatories to the pact, which took effect in 1975, but it lacks verification mechanisms. A renewed effort to strengthen it has been under negotiation since 1994 but is unresolved.
The United States scrapped its biological weapons program in 1969. But the Soviet Union, while signing the treaty, simultaneously began a massive, clandestine expansion of its germ warfare program.
The Soviets at the time already had military biological laboratories, including the one at Sverdlovsk, which Western intelligence had spotted. To deceive the international community, the expanded bio-weapons program was disguised inside a civilian agency established in 1973 and known as Biopreparat, which grew to more than 25,000 workers and 18 research institutes. The weapons part of the network included massive standby production factories that could produce about 330 tons of anthrax munitions a year.
After the Soviet collapse, Yeltsin ordered the program dismantled in 1992, and several of the leading Biopreparat facilities have since opened their doors to collaboration with Western scientists. But Russia has kept tightly closed three Defense Ministry microbiology laboratories at Zagorsk, Kirov and here in Yekaterinburg, where the base is known as Compound 19. A 1992 agreement among the United States, Russia and Britain for mutual site inspections also has stalled, with Russia putting the military microbiology facilities off-limits.
"What is troubling is the lack of transparency surrounding these facilities," said Jonathan B. Tucker, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The Russian refusal to accept inspections, he said, is "raising questions about what is going on at these facilities. We don't know for sure."
'This Is a Nightmare'
On April 5, 1979, after learning of the first deaths in the Sverdlovsk epidemic, Ilyenko rushed into her office at Hospital 24 in Sverdlovsk. "I threw my bag into my office, I put my white gown on, and I walked up to the ward," she recalled. "It looked horrible. There are dead bodies, people still alive, all lying together. I thought this is a nightmare. ... Something is very, very wrong."
The victims were listed as suffering from pneumonia or influenza. But Grinberg recalls he went to a reception, where he danced with his mentor, another pathologist, Faina Abramova. She whispered to him that earlier in the day she had autopsied a 37-year-old man and diagnosed anthrax as the cause of death.
Grinberg recalled his surprise. "I asked, where in our God-forsaken Sverdlovsk can we have anthrax?" The next day, he was summoned to a hospital where three more women had died, supposedly of pneumonia. "Then I saw a horrible picture," he recalled the women had all suffered from identical, sharp hemorrhaging of the lungs and lymph nodes.
This was critical information because it suggested that the anthrax bacteria had been airborne and inhaled by the victims, and it contradicted the official line that tainted meat was the cause.
A special emergency committee was set up in Sverdlovsk to deal with the crisis. High-ranking Soviet officials arrived from Moscow. Disinfection teams soaked the hospitals with chlorine. In the Chkalovsky district, houses were washed down, stray dogs were shot, and roads were paved.
The KGB seized the official "protocols" or reports of every autopsy. But, despite the risks, Grinberg and Abramova kept material for future study. They made cards with handwritten notes. They kept carbon copies of some protocols. Although it was prohibited, Grinberg got a friend to take color photographs of the autopsies using East German slide film, and the photos survived.
The two pathologists also preserved tissue samples. In a cupboard at his office in the Yekaterinburg morgue, Grinberg still has a box of small matchbox-size tissue samples preserved in paraffin wax that only recently have unlocked new secrets about the epidemic.
In an interview, they said they were unsure why their evidence was never seized. They both pointed to the role played by Vladimir Nikiforov, a top Soviet infectious disease expert who came from Moscow and supervised their work at the time. "We are certain that he knew the truth," Grinberg said of Nikiforov, who later died. Abramova said that while Nikiforov publicly stuck to the official line about contaminated meat, he also privately encouraged them to keep the medical evidence.
Across town, Ilyenko also was making a record that the KGB neglected to confiscate. In her own hand, in a child's school notebook, she kept a chronology of events sometimes just fragments of notes, but also lists of victims and details about a mass vaccination effort. The pages bear the simple notation "Infection 022," the code she was instructed to use for the anthrax epidemic.
In Washington, there were charges as early as 1980 that the Sverdlovsk epidemic showed the Soviets may have cheated on the biological weapons treaty. However, inside the intelligence community, analysts had difficulty sorting out what had happened. The information was contradictory. Prof. Matthew S. Meselson of Harvard University's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology was part of an early group of experts who puzzled over the evidence, but it was not conclusive.
Later, in 1986, Meselson visited Moscow and interviewed doctors, including Nikiforov. Meselson was shown photos from the autopsies but recalled that Nikiforov maintained the infection was not airborne.
In 1988, leading Soviet physicians came to the United States and continued to insist that tainted meat was the cause. They delivered a detailed, high-profile presentation in Washington at the National Academy of Sciences, showing autopsy slides and claiming the anthrax bacteria had been spread from contaminated bone meal to cattle and to people. They said the epidemic sickened 96 people between April 4 and May 18, of whom 79 had signs of gastrointestinal anthrax, and 64 of those had died. The others were said to have contracted anthrax through the skin but survived.
In an article published in Science magazine in 1994, Meselson said the visiting Soviet physicians had made a plausible case but that more evidence was needed. Grinberg said in an interview that the Soviet visitors had displayed slides showing damage to the intestines of the victims, indicating that tainted meat was the cause, but had omitted key evidence about the lungs that might have pointed to inhalation anthrax.
The Soviet collapse led to new disclosures. In 1993, Grinberg and Abramova, encouraged by the new sense of openness, published in a Russian scientific journal their findings that the victims had suffered from inhalation anthrax.
Also, Meselson finally won permission to lead a research group to the renamed city of Yekaterinburg to study what had happened. His group made a significant discovery: On April 2, 1979, the victims were downwind from Compound 19, the secret military microbiology laboratory.
The compound is located in a forested area on the southern end of the city. When first set up in 1949, it was distant from Sverdlovsk's population, but since then, the city has grown around it. Just next to the compound, to the south, is a regular military base, Compound 32, which houses two tank divisions. Further south is a community of single-story wooden houses, with small gardens. Across the road from the houses is a ceramics factory.
According to Meselson's findings, based on local airport weather reports, the wind was blowing from Compound 19 in the direction of the ceramics factory. Jeanne Guillemin, a Boston College professor who interviewed families of the victims, plotted their locations on a map and most were in a narrow band parallel to the northerly wind.
Vladlen Krayev, chief engineer of the ceramics factory, was present when the epidemic began. He recalled that the factory had a ventilator that sucked air from outside. Some air was pumped into ceramics furnaces, but the rest was used for general ventilation.
Over the next few weeks, at least 18 factory workers died. Krayev recalled that people were short of breath. The factory was instructed to wash down everything including the ventilator. They were told the epidemic was anthrax. "But the meat theory lasted only two days," he said. Krayev said he didn't ask questions about where the deadly aerosol had really come from.
Even two decades later, puzzling questions remain. The precise death toll is not certain. Meselson's group found 66 people who died. Grinberg said there may have been more deaths early in the epidemic that were not reported. Others have speculated about a death toll in the hundreds, or even in the thousands, but there has never been any proof.
In her notebook, Ilyenko wrote on one page:
"April 20, 1979
"214 in Hosp. #40."
Ilyenko said the 45 deaths were in her hospital. The other hospital, No. 40, had been set up as a special location for treating victims.
Even more mysterious is the fact that the anthrax did not take the life of a single child, although there were schools and children in the area. Moreover, the victims were mostly men. Of 77 victims and survivors tabulated by Meselson, 55 are men. None of the victims was younger than 24.
Grinberg said one theory is that the children had stronger immune systems. Many of the men who died were smokers.
During the crisis, more than 50,000 people were vaccinated, according to Ilyenko's notes. But it is not clear whether the vaccine was effective against the kind of anthrax bacteria that had been released. Some of those who were vaccinated also died. Ilyenko called the vaccine "completely ineffective."
The Washington Post delivered a letter to a top official of Compound 19, Viktor Domovesov, asking questions about the events of 1979. No response was received.
Some Russian officials continue to deny that a leak from Compound 19 caused the epidemic. In an interview with the newspaper Novye Izvestia this year, Lt. Gen. Valentin Yevstigneev, a deputy commander in the Russian radiation, chemical and biological defense forces, claimed anew that the anthrax bacteria came from tainted meat that may have been burned. Pyotr Burgasov, who led the Soviet delegation that claimed tainted meat was the cause a decade ago, recently reiterated that claim in another newspaper interview. "I still have documents clearly proving it," he said.
Igor Domaradsky, a former high-ranking official in the Soviet biological weapons program, told a different story in a little-noted 1995 memoir. "Of course, the military deny any implication in that tragedy," he wrote of the Sverdlovsk epidemic, "although in private conversation many of them insist on the opposite."
Kenneth Alibek, the former first deputy director of Biopreparat who defected to the United States in 1992, recently told a seminar at the Monterey Institute: "Until now, the military doesn't want to admit what was the real cause of this accident. But in reality it was an accident through an exhaust ventilating system some amount of anthrax biological weapon went through and contaminated some part of the territory in the city of Sverdlovsk."
The tissue samples preserved by Grinberg and Abramova, the pathologists, also have been analyzed for the first time at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico using sophisticated genetic testing methods. The results raised a chilling prospect: that the Soviet Union had engineered a multi-strain cocktail of anthrax bacteria. The samples carried an unusual mixture of four different anthrax bacteria strains. In other epidemics, only one strain has been present.
"This culture," said Grinberg, "does not come from nature."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company