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Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak 1979 – the impact

Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak 1979 - the impact
DAVID HESLOP: It was not until the defection of Vladimir Pasechnik as senior scientist in 1989 and the immigration of the former deputy director of Biopreparat Ken Alibek in 1992 that further critical information regarding this event emerged. They independently confirmed that in 1979 a military microbiological production facility was located four kilometres to the south of Sverdlovsk, that included Compound 19. The purpose of Compound 19 was to mill dried anthrax spores to a size suitable for dissemination in weaponisation. Compound 19 commonly dealt with large concentrations of spores, sometimes aloft in the air, due to a process involved a weaponisation known as milling.
This process dries and grinds the anthrax into a fine powder that can be more easily disseminated by an airborne route. Ease of dissemination and the ability to spread by airborne means is a highly desirable feature when making weaponised anthrax. The nature and purpose of Compound 19 was confirmed by Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, who was a senior regional government official in Sverdlovsk at the time. Alibek wrote in his account Biohazard that in actuality on 30th of March, 1979, a technician in Compound 19
scribbled a note to his supervisor: “filter clogged - removed - needs replacement. This was not noticed by the evening supervisor, and the milling and local exhaust ventilation machinery restarted after the production shift changed. The missing filter was noticed some hours later and then replaced. This mistake allowed for an unknown amount of anthrax spores to be released over the course of a few hours into the atmosphere outside of the laboratory. With the prevailing weather conditions, the spores we carried downwind from Compound 19 towards the work locations of the human cases, and then beyond into the countryside surrounding Sverdlovsk and to the animals that were also subsequently infected at great distance. The impact of this event continues to be felt today.
There was widespread recognition that the Soviet Union had not complied with the Biological Weapons Convention, despite assurances that it had done so. Meselson estimated based on the geographic distribution of cases that it was likely that only a few milligrams to one gram of anthrax spores were released. His calculations and the conclusions resulting from them have caused a significant revision in the general understanding of the infectivity and risks posed by airborne release of anthrax spores. Until recently, there remained uncertainty as to the precise nature of the anthrax released. Was the Soviet Union developing a modified strain of anthrax with high virulence, or was it trying to develop a special pathogen feature that could overcome protection such as vaccination?
While these questions are important and concerning, recent studies using advanced genetic techniques have shown that the anthrax found in the Sverdlovsk cases was derived from a natural, unmodified anthrax strain. While this does not reduce the significance of the hidden efforts of Biopreparat and the apparent breaches of the Biological Weapons Convention, it has decreased concern that modified anthrax might have been developed and was stockpiled, and potentially is a threat today.
The Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak of 1979 is an important historical example of the risks associated with biological weapons, and the dangers associated with their research, manufacture, and stockpiling. It provides unique insights into the utility, but also some of the weaknesses of clinical diagnosis, laboratory testing, and outbreak investigation when confronted with high risk pathogens such as anthrax. Above all, it allows us to reflect on the pattern of risks and consequences associated with similar pathogens, and the kinds of controls and investigative techniques that may be required to ensure that similar events do not occur again.
The Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak 1979 – the impact
In this presentation you will explore the impact of the outbreak, the aftermath and reaction in the international scientific community, and the final outcomes in the days, months and years following. This will focus on:
  • The nature of the event – accidental, deliberate, natural or other
  • The importance of laboratory and industrial work, health and safety processes when handling high risk biological pathogens
  • The influence of authorities and the state during the response, and the aftermath over years.
After watching this video, in the comments section below discuss your answers to the following questions:
  1. How might workers and managers at the facility have prevented this occurring? What are the work, health and safety lessons to be learnt here?
  2. In the cultural and political environment in Russia at that time, was it likely that the details of this event would have been openly discussed with local residents or the public at large? Why?
  3. What negative impacts on the local community do you think this event had? Outline your rationale.
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Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Public Health Dimensions

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