From the cold war, lessons in combating anthrax
Russia offers stockpiles of vaccine and bioweapons research to the US.
As fears of an anthrax outbreak grow in the United States, help and reassurance could be on the way from an unexpected source - Russia.
Drawing on experience from a vast Soviet-era biological warfare program and a cold war accident, Russia has more knowledge and practical tools for combatting anthrax than any other country. And it has offered those resources, including stockpiles of anthrax vaccine, to the US.
The USSR amassed enormous quantities of anthrax vaccine to protect its population in case of World War Three. The Soviet vaccine was based on live anthrax strains, and confers protection for up to one year. The variant used in the US is of chemical composition, lasts only a few weeks, and its short supplies are reserved for the military.
"Our production capabilities are very high, and I think we could quickly satisfy any level of need," says Anatoly Vorobyov, an anthrax specialist at the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, "There is no doubt that these US cases are the result of bio-terror. But Americans should understand that this particular threat, thankfully, can be easily contained."
About 30 people die annually in Russia from natural outbreaks of the disease. A current outbreak of natural anthrax in a remote part of Siberia has hospitalized about 40 people who came into contact with infected livestock.
"There are different types of naturally occurring anthrax, and we regularly encounter them all," says Viktor Ladny, a researcher with the Health Ministry's Institute of Epidemiology in Moscow. "What is happening in the US now is not natural, of course, but something engineered in a laboratory."
Engineered anthrax is ruefully familiar to some Russians. In 1979 a secret germ warfare facility in the Urals city of Sverdlovsk accidentally vented small amounts of artificial anthrax into the atmosphere, killing at least 66 people and sending hundreds more to the hospital.
Soviet authorities acted quickly, vaccinating about 50,000, scrubbing Sverdlovsk buildings with chlorine solution, and repaving roads. The KGB seized all medical records relating to the disaster. Soviet officials said at the time that the culprit was tainted meat, but Sverdlovsk's Communist Party secretary in 1979, Boris Yeltsin, admitted in 1992 that "our military developments were the cause."
"The Sverdlovsk accident had a big impact on Soviet civil defense policies," says Nikita Tyukov, a military expert with the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "Security was greatly improved at our biological warfare centers, and procedures were prepared to deal with future outbreaks."
A 1972 agreement between the US and Russia banned development, production and stockpiling of germ weapons for offensive purposes, but allowed research for defensive reasons. In the late 1980s, reformist communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the disposal of the country's stocks of biological weapons.
The Soviet military dumped tons of anthrax powder on Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea, a site that now belongs jointly to the post-Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. American researchers found live anthrax spores there in the early '90s. But Russian experts say the former Soviet germ warfare program is probably not the origin of the anthrax powder being sent through US mail.
"Anthrax is relatively easy to obtain, and doesn't require elaborate skills or facilities to work with," says Lev Fyodorov, an independent expert on biological warfare. "No one needs to hunt for anthrax on Vozrozhdeniya Island, it can be found in many places."
Anthrax was the Soviet biological weapon of choice because its spores are hardy, can be stored in various forms, and can be widely distributed in the deadly inhaled form by a missile or bomb, says Mr. Fyodorov. "Today's terrorists, thank goodness, do not have those means of delivery."
Suspect powder has turned up in Russia. A Moscow firm received an envelope with white powder, but tests showed no anthrax. On Tuesday, a Moscow newspaper received a bottle in a suspicious-looking package.
Mr. Vorobyov called the current anthrax scares "a wake-up call. We need to take common measures before terrorists lay their hands on some substance with the potential to kill millions."