Sverdlovsk Anthrax Leak

In all, 96 people were hospitalized for anthrax during the Sverdlovsk outbreak of 1979, including cutaneous cases.

Of these 96 hospitalized people, 6 were admitted to hospitals in Sverdlovsk on April 4, 1979. The peak of the epidemic occurred on April 10, 1979 when 10 patients were admitted. A graph prepared by the Soviets in 1988 includes both fatalities and survivors (see below). Of the 96 hospitalized patients, 64 died (a case fatality rate of 67%), according to Soviet records, thereby “tripling the USSR’s yearly average morbidity from anthrax and pushed its death rate off the chart.”

The first reports emerged in October 1979 by way of a Russian-language newspaper in Frankfurt, West Germany that was close to the Soviet emigre community, which ran a brief report lacking any details about a major germ accident leading to deaths estimated in the thousands taking place in Russia. New details emerged in this same paper in early 1980, with reports of an explosion in April 1979 at a secret military installation near Sverdlovsk that released a large amount of anthrax spores into the air, again with a thousand people estimated dead from the disease. There were also reports that the area had been placed under Soviet military control with extensive decontamination efforts implemented. The story gained world attention as major British and West German news papers ran stories on the catastrophe. As these reports emerged, U.S. intelligence began to look more carefully at satellite imagery and signals intercepts from the spring of 1979 and found possibly corroborative signs of a serious accident such as roadblocks and decontamination trucks around Compound 19, a military installation in Sverdlovsk, as well as a visit by Soviet Defense Minister Ustinov to the city. The anthrax explanation also seemed plausible, given the past history of U.S. and Soviet efforts to develop the deadly microbe into a biological weapon.

The Sverdlovsk anthrax leak is an incident when spores of anthrax were accidentally released from a military facility in the city of Sverdlovsk (formerly, and now again, Yekaterinburg) 1450 km east of Moscow on April 2, 1979. This accident is sometimes called "biological Chernobyl". The ensuing outbreak of the disease resulted in approximately 100 deaths, although the exact number of victims remains unknown. The cause of the outbreak had for years been denied by the Soviet Union, which blamed the deaths on intestinal exposure due to the consumption of tainted meat from the area, and subcutaneous exposure due to butchers handling the tainted meat. All medical records of the victims had been removed in order to avoid revelations of serious violations of the Biological Weapons Convention.