One April morning in 1979, death came on a breeze. Little did the people of Sverdlovsk, Russia, know, but a clandestine plant had accidentally released bioweaponized anthrax. At least 66 people died and many more would have if the wind had blown toward the city instead. Soviet officials tried blaming tainted black market meat, but after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 U.S. scientists were able to confirm that the culprit was anthrax.
One source was Russian defector and former deputy director of Soviet biological warfare, Ken Alibek. In his book, he revealed the USSR had secretly developed bioweapons on a large scale despite having signed the 1972 Biological Warfare Convention treaty.
Anthrax is capable of forming nearly indestructible spores that can remain dormant for decades. If the spores are inhaled, ingested, or enter an open wound, they revive and proliferate rapidly while producing toxins. Without treatment about 90% of infected people die, and even with aggressive treatment only half survive.
With the continued threat of bioweapons, scientists recently sequenced the genome of the anthrax involved in the Sverdlovsk release. From preserved DNA samples, they found it was a close relative of the vaccine strain and thankfully had not been altered much.
However, from what we know about the Soviet weapons program, they likely engineered even more deadly anthrax, as well as the plague, smallpox, and other microbes. Their continued existence poses a future threat to us all.
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