Patients started coming to hospitals with unexplained pneumonia. Dozens of them died within days. Secret police confiscated medical records and ordered doctors to remain silent. US spies have gathered evidence of something allegedly leaking from a lab, but local officials have come up with a more mundane explanation: tainted meat.
It took over a decade for the truth to come to light.
At least 66 people died in April and May 1979 when airborne anthrax bacteria emerged from a military laboratory in the Soviet Union. But prominent American scientists have expressed confidence in the Soviets’ claim that the pathogen has passed from animals to humans. It was only after a thorough investigation carried out in the 1990s that one of the experts confirmed earlier suspicions: the accident in the Russian city now called Yekaterinburg was the result of a laboratory leak, one of the deadliest ever documented.
Today, the graves of some of the victims are abandoned, and their names engraved on metal plaques at the bottom of a cemetery on the outskirts of town, where they were buried in coffins with agricultural disinfectant, are eroded. But the story of the crash that claimed their lives and the cover-up operation that hid it has resumed as scientists research the origins of Covid-19.
She shows how an authoritarian government is able to shape the narrative of an epidemic and how it can take years – or maybe even regime change – for the truth to be uncovered.
“Crazy rumors rage around every outbreak,” Nobel Prize-winning American biologist Joshua Lederberg wrote in a note after a fact-finding trip to Moscow in 1986. “The current Soviet explanation is most likely true.”
Many scientists believe the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic evolved in animals and at one point jumped into humans. But the researchers are also calling for further investigation into the possibility of an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
There is widespread fear that the Chinese government (which rejects the possibility of a virus leak from the lab, as the Soviet government did decades ago) will not give international investigators access and data that could shed light on the origins of the pandemic. .
“We all have a common interest in whether the pandemic is the result of a lab accident,” said Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, interviewed this month in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Perhaps this was a type of accident that our current guidelines do not provide adequate protection against.”
A biological warfare specialist, Meselson in 1980 moved into the guest bedroom of a friend who worked for the CIA to study secret information suggesting that the anthrax outbreak in the Soviet Union was linked to a military installation. . Six years later, he wrote that the explanation given by the Soviets for the natural origin of the epidemic was “plausible”. For him, the evidence provided by the Soviets was consistent with the theory that people had been affected by intestinal anthrax from contaminated bone meal used as animal feed.
Then, in 1922, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted that “our military development was the cause” of the anthrax epidemic.
Meselson and his wife, medical anthropologist Jeanne Guillemin, traveled to Yekaterinburg with other American experts to do a detailed study. They documented how on April 2, 1979, a northeast wind must have dispersed anthrax spores, perhaps only a few milligrams, accidentally thrown from the plant into a narrow area that spanned at least 30 miles downwind.
Explaining how the Soviets managed to dispel suspicion about a lab leak, Meselson said, “You can make up a completely crazy story and make it plausible by the way you conceive of it.”
In Sverdlovsk, the name given to Yekaterinburg in Soviet times, those suspicions arose as people began to mysteriously fall ill, as revealed by interviews this month with locals who remember that time.
Raisa Smirnova, who was 32 at the time and worked at a nearby pottery factory, said she had friends who worked in the mysterious lab and used their privileges to help her obtain oranges and canned meat, products that are normally difficult to obtain. She had also heard that some sort of secret work with germs was being done in the lab, to which local rumors attributed occasional outbreaks.
“Why are your hands blue?” Smirnova remembers a coworker asking her one day in April 1979 on her way to work, apparently showing symptoms of lack of oxygen in her blood.
She was rushed to hospital with a high fever and spent a week in the hospital, unconscious. By May, 18 of his colleagues had died. Before being allowed to return home, KGB agents took a document which she had signed, forbidding her from speaking about the events for a period of 25 years.
In the epidemiological service of Sverdlovsk, health researcher Viktor Romanenko participated in the cover-up in a subordinate position. He said he knew immediately that the disease outbreak that struck the city could not have been from food-borne intestinal anthrax, as health officials have claimed. The pattern and timing of the distribution of cases revealed that the source was airborne and this was a one-time event.
“We all realize that this [a explicação oferecida] it was total bullshit, ”said Romanenko, who would eventually become the senior regional public health official in post-Soviet times.
In a communist state, however, he had no choice but to participate in the hoax. He and his colleagues spent months apprehending and testing the meat. KGB agents broke into his office and took away medical records. The Soviet Union had signed a treaty banning biological weapons and national interests were at stake.
“It was understood that we had to move away as far as possible from the theory of biological weapons,” recalls Romanenko. “It was about defending the honor of the country.
The concern reached Evening Sverdlovsk, a local newspaper. A New York Times correspondent called the newsroom when the epidemic was underway, recalls a journalist working there at the time, Alexander Pashkov. The editor told reporters not to take international or long-distance calls, to prevent someone from throwing an inappropriate message if the caller called again.
“Anyone who can keep a secret wins,” said Pashkov.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, its ability to keep secrets also collapsed. For a documentary made in 1992, Pashkov tracked down a retired counterintelligence officer then residing in Ukraine – which is now a different country – who was working in Sverdlovsk at the time. The officer said intercepted phone calls from the military lab revealed that a technician forgot to replace a safety filter.
Shortly thereafter, Yeltsin – who, as the region’s main Communist leader in 1979, had himself participated in the cover-up operation – admitted that the military was to blame.
“You have to understand something very simple,” Pashkov said. “Why has all of this become common knowledge? Because of the fall of the USSR.
Meselson said that determining the origin of epidemics becomes more crucial when geopolitical issues are involved. If he and his colleagues had not proven the cause of the outbreak at the time, he said, the problem could still be an irritant in relations between Russia and the West.
The same goes for the investigation into the origin of Covid-19, Meselson said. As long as the source of the pandemic remains a source of suspicion, the issue will continue to create tensions with China, more than if the truth came out.
“There’s a huge difference between people who are always trying to prove a point, to fight emotional opposition, and people who can look back and say ‘yes, I was right,'” said Meselson. “One of them fuels wars. The other is history. We need to find answers to these questions. We need history, not all that emotion.
Unlike Covid-19, anthrax is not easily transmitted from human to human, which is why the leak from the Sverdlovsk laboratory did not trigger a larger epidemic. But even Sverdlovsk’s case has not been fully elucidated to date. It is still unclear whether the covert activity at the factory was the development of illegal biological weapons – something the Soviet Union is known to have done – or whether it was research into a vaccine.