Soldiers walk by the concrete fence that surrounds Compound 19, a closed military facility in Yekaterinburg. In 1979, a leak from a germ warfare laboratory in the compound caused an anthrax outbreak, which killed at least 68 people.
Russia's killer anthrax under lock and key
By Jon Boyle, Reuters, 10/22/01
MOSCOW - While anthrax scares sweep the United States, Russia has for centuries lived with the killer bacterium and says it has deadly "super bug" strains developed by the Soviet war machine under lock and key.
At its height, 70,000 people worked on the Soviet germ warfare program, including 9,000 scientists and engineers who turned anthrax, the plague and smallpox into weapons of mass destruction, U.S.-based experts say.
But the 15-20 Russians who each year contract anthrax succumb to a naturally occurring variety.
"We call anthrax Siberian Ulcer because it has been in Siberia since ancient times," said Vladimir Orlovsky, head doctor at the infectious diseases ward at the Vektor Research Institute in the Urals town of Koltsovo.
"For Americans it may be an exotic disease, but for us it isn't."
At the start of the 20th century, Russia recorded 60,000-70,000 cases of the suppurating skin sores in cattle each year, and 14,000-20,000 cases in people, 20 percent of which ended in death, said Benjamin Cherkassky, Russia's premier anthrax specialist.
Poor hygiene and the collapse of veterinary systems with the fall of the Soviet Union mean that farm and leather industry workers still contract the illness today, he said.
NO RUSSIAN LINK
Germ warfare experts say the anthrax strain that has sown panic in the United States is indigenous to the United States, for the weapons-grade strain designed for Soviet biological bombs would have been much more lethal.
In the last few weeks there have been at least nine confirmed cases of anthrax in the United States, one of them fatal. Twenty-eight U.S. Senate staff members have tested positive for exposure to the bacterium after an anthrax-laced letter was sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle last week.
"If the anthrax (being spread in America) had been a real (biological weapon) strain, then I think that the Capitol Hill staff would have all been placed in emergency wards and would have died within two days," independent Russian biological weapons expert Lev Fyodorov said.
"The biological weapon strain of anthrax is potent -- 100 percent death rate."
Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush pledged at the weekend to prevent nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction being used for terrorism.
No formal link has yet been made between the spate of anthrax-laced letters and other incidents in the United States with Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind Sept. 11 hijacked airliner attacks on New York and Washington.
Russian, European and U.S. experts say they believe that germs in the stockpiles Russia inherited from the Soviet Union are not accessible to people seeking to launch similar attacks.
"You might not love Russia and its bureaucratic system," said Fyodorov, "but right from the start, when the work on bio-warfare started in the Soviet Union, security measures were taken."
"And these security measures have only been strengthened over the years, not weakened. I just don't see how evil-doers could get around these measures," he said.
Western experts concur. Jan van Aken, head of the Sunshine Project in Hamburg, a nongovernmental group that studies biological weapons, said fears of a "brain-drain" of Soviet-trained scientists to "rogue states" were misplaced.
"The Western world, the United States and the European Union, spent a lot of money diverting the former biological weapon facilities in Russia to civilian biomedical research.
"The best scientists in the program are probably either still in Russia or in western universities," he said.
In the early 1990s the United States launched a multimillion-dollar program to keep such researchers in jobs not related to biological weapons.
Matthew Meselson, a Harvard University expert who has sat on government panels on biological weapons, said: "I've never had any briefings where I've been told we suspect the Russians (of proliferating biological weapons know-how)."