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Anthrax outbreak: the Soviet scenario.

Anthrax outbreak: The Soviet scenario

Three high-ranking Soviet scientists visiting the United States presented their government's most detailed report on the deadly 1979 anthrax outbreak in the city of Sverdlovsk, offering new evidence that the epidemic resulted from tainted meat. The U.S. Department of Defense has long alleged that the epidemic was caused by an accident at a nearby biological warfare facility.

A number of questions about the incident remain unanswered after the Soviets' three talks last week. But many scientists say the new evidence strongly supports the Soviet claim that the epidemic was indeed due to ingestion of anthrax spores--rather than their inhalation, as might be expected in the case of a biological warfare accident. Still, the Defense Department says it remains unmoved by the new data.

"We stand by our statement in our book," a Defense Department official told SCIENCE NEWS, Referring to a 1986 Defense Intelligence Agency publication, "The Soviet Biological Warfare Threat." That document states that "an accidental release of anthrax occured within the Microbiology and Virology Institute in Sverdlovsk City," after "a pressurized system probably exploded." It cites unconfirmed reports that "there may have been 1,000 or more cases" of anthrax as a result of the accident.

However, according to Petr Burgasov, the Soviet deputy minister of health who supervised investigation of the epidemic, the outbreak caused 96 cases of anthrax, 64 of them fatal. "I would like very much that you take my word for this and exclude the fantasy that thousands of people fell ill," he said through an interpreter, speaking with great emotion to scientists and journalists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Later, he asked, "What else do you need for prool? I don't understand your doubts at all."

The Soviets provided, in the words of one American specialist, "the best slides we've ever seen of intestinal anthrax," a rare and not well understood form of anthrax. Anthrax is a bacterial disease that in its more common form causes black ulcers on the skin of humans who have come in close contact with infected animals or animal skins. According to the Soviet scientists, Sverdlovsk residents became infected after eating tainted meat sold illegally on the black market. The meat came from animals fed unsterilized fodder made from bone meal contaminated with anthrax spores, Burgasov said.

Western scientists were disappointed that no photographs of lung tissue were shown. However, the Soviets noted, the time course of the epidemic, which lasted more than a month, was not suggestive of a single, catastrophic release. And children who ate state-inspected meat at state-run day care centers did not fall ill.

Several scientists and a U.S. Army commander familiar with the new evidence told SCIENCE NEWS that more details, preferably a peer-reviewed scientific paper, could help eliminate lingering skepticism. In total, however, the Soviet data add up to a strong "epidemiologic inference" that the outbreak was in fact food-borne, according to Alexander Langmuir, a former chief epidemiologist for the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

"Their epidemiology is somewhat different from ours, somewhat less rigorous and more argumentative, but they told a consistent story, they seemed to be sincere and they deserve our full attention," he said in an interview. "This is not proof, but I've lived long enough to know that proof is a very elusive thing."
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Author:Weiss, Rick
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 23, 1988
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