In 1979, one of the worst biological weapons disasters on record was nearly swept under the rug of history by the Soviet military. Soviet scientists were researching chemical and biological weapons at a secret research facility in Sverdlovsk when they accidentally released a deadly strain of anthrax bacteria. It is estimated that around 100 people and hundreds of livestock died as a result of the leak, although the Soviet government naturally obfuscated all ensuing investigations. The exact death toll remains unknown.
The official cover story at the time was that tainted meat had been released on the public, but a 1994 study by Harvard historians concluded that aerosol anthrax was indeed the cause. Despite that revelation, the exact nature of the anthrax involved has remained a mystery in the 37 years since its release.
Now, a new study led by genetics researcher Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University has successfully sequenced the entire genome of the anthrax involved in this military disaster, and what was found is surprising. While it was assumed that the anthrax involved must have been genetically modified in order to weaponize it, researchers found evidence to the contrary:
The Soviet Sverdlovsk strain genome is consistent with a wild-type strain from Russia that had no evidence of genetic manipulation during its industrial production. […] While it is known that Soviet scientists had genetically manipulated Bacillus anthracis with the potential to evade vaccine prophylaxis and antibiotic therapeutics, there was no genomic evidence of this from the Sverdlovsk production strain genome.
To reach this conclusion, researchers conducted autopsies on known victims of the Sverdlovsk disaster in order to isolate specimens of the specific anthrax strain, Bacillus anthracis. The genome sequenced in this research is consistent with wild strains of anthrax which commonly infect livestock populations.
Now that scientists know the composition of this bioweapon, government forces can be more prepared to respond to any future biological attacks if one of these weapons might somehow get into the hands of terrorists. Hopefully, this finding could also help close some of the festering wounds still lingering from the Cold War. Perhaps those Soviet scientists weren’t as nefarious as we thought. Wait…we were the bad guys all along?