Analysis identifies lethal strain of anthrax the Soviets produced as bioweapon

The first Monday in April 1979, a wind blew south through a Siberian city of Sverdlovsk call.

A few days later, the people and the sheep began to die.

Government officials said the victims had eaten contaminated meat Anthrax or contact with sick animals by the deadly bacteria. Or maybe, officials hinted, was a plot by the US government.

The article continues after the announcement

At the time of the outbreak ended two months later, 64 people had died.

nearly four decades would be needed to Western scientists to find out what had happened.

They shared their latest findings on Tuesday at journal mBio : The Soviets had been-mass production of spores of Anthrax as a biological weapon, but they were not manipulating the genes of bacteria . There was no need. It was quite mortal without bioengineering.

“I think I was a little relieved,” said lead author Paul Keim, a professor of biology and director of the Center for Microbial Genomics and the University of Northern Arizona Genetics. “It would have been very ruin if they had been genetically engineered and militarization her.”

The new research was made possible by a 1992 trip to Sverdlovsk, by then renamed Yekaterinburg, by American researchers determined to rebuild what had really happened in the spring of 1979.

Team members brought samples of the victims lungs and other tissues preserved in paraffin and formaldehyde. They wrote several scientific papers and books on their research. But they do not have the tools to sequence the genes of the strain of Anthrax until recently.

The new genetic analysis shows that the deadly strain was almost genetically identical to a wild strain found in farm animals earlier this year.

The new genetic analysis is not limited to solve a historical mystery. can also be used as a fingerprint to identify the Soviet strain if ever turns back, Keim said.

Now, the knowledge accumulated after investigating the outbreak of Anthrax 1979 has been very helpful.

A week after the 9/11 attacks, someone began sending Anthrax tainted letters to news organizations and political leaders. Five people died during the next six weeks. Keim said his lab quickly determined that the letters had not come Anthrax Iraqi supplies. The strains do not match.

A lethal spore, drifting in the wind

The US team that traveled to Siberia in the 90s was directed by Matthew Meselson, a professor at Harvard University, and his wife, Jeanne Guillemin, an expert in medical sociology who now works at MIT. They toured a local cemetery and conducted interviews with family members, survivors, and hospital workers, according to an article published in Science in 1994.

checked the weather data that revealed a cold front had brought subzero temperatures on that day in early April. A strong wind around 10 mph, blew a.m.-7 p.m. 04

At some point that day, Anthrax spores which weighs less than a clip were apparently released in the wind from a nearby military biological factory called Compound 19.

Later, an official suggested workers had temporarily forgotten to replace a filter in an exhaust system, triggering the release.

Anthrax spores can remain dormant in the soil for decades. They do not multiply unless they have access to the lungs, stomach or skin of a living being. a few thousand of spores inhaled deeply into the lungs that cause disease in people takes. Sverdlovsk spores dead sheep – which are more susceptible to Anthrax. – As far as 30 miles downwind of the Soviet system, while human deaths were observed for about 2.5 miles

Spores, which tend to cluster together, must be of adequate size to cause Anthrax inhalation. Too many spores in a group and they will get caught by the mucosa of the nose or digested by the stomach. Soviet weapons manufacturers were focusing on keeping the spores in groups measuring only a few microns in diameter, too small to be trapped in the mucus, Keim said.

Once inside the body, the spores are carried by the lymphatic system in the sternum, where they germinate and begin to reproduce, said Raymond Zilinskas, who directs the program of chemical and biological proliferation at the Institute of Middlebury International Studies Monterey, California. If left untreated, they can kill within days.

anthrax is easily defeated by common antibiotics, including penicillin and Cipro, Zilinskas said. There is an effective vaccine, but has to be given before exposure.

Bacteria are considered very suitable for biological warfare. Anthrax spores can remain stable for years. Small amounts can wreak havoc.

Haunting questions about the fate of Anthrax

The Soviets made enough Anthrax, Keim believes, “that if dispersed in the right way, would have killed much of the human population.”

During the Cold War, they were losing the arms race of the US, and they could not afford to keep building nuclear weapons, he said. “Therefore, addressed this cheap weapon,” Keim said. “Anthrax has been called” poor man’s nuclear weapon. ”

David Walker, executive director of the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston said he believes Anthrax is likely the preferred biological weapon of terrorists is maintained.

Therefore, what is at night, meditating? “I do not care about anything,” 73-year-old he said, noting that Americans are much more likely to be injured on their way to work in a terrorist attack.

The Soviets reportedly destroyed their stockpiles of Anthrax in the 1990s, by inactivating with Clorox and bury them in the “Island resurrection” in the Aral Sea – a giant lake on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Water levels in the sea since fallen, diverted to irrigate cotton fields, and the island is now a peninsula easily accessible, Keim said.

Do not know if all the stocks actually arrived on the island, is or where they were inactivated -. Or if the spores could still survive

“I wonder if all stocks were destroyed or not,” Walker said. “That to me was the concern. Do not have seen.”

Correction :. An earlier version of this story misstated the number of people killed in the outbreak of Anthrax

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