It took more than a decade for a 1979 Soviet lab leak to be revealed

It took more than a decade for a 1979 Soviet lab leak to be revealed
(AP Photo/Alexander Zenlianichenko, file)

Sunday the NY Times published an interesting bit of history which seems very relevant at this moment in time. The story takes place in 1979 when there was a mysterious outbreak of pneumonia in Russia which eventually killed 66 people. The outbreak was blamed on contaminated meat but it turns out that was a lie designed to cover up the real cause, a lab leak of anthrax which had spread though the air. One of the doctors who helped in the cover up told the Times what happened.

At Sverdlovsk’s epidemiological service, the epidemiologist Viktor Romanenko was a foot soldier in the cover-up. He says he knew immediately that the disease outbreak striking the city could not be intestinal, food-borne anthrax as the senior health authorities claimed. The pattern and timing of the cases’ distribution showed that the source was airborne and a one-time event.

“We all understood that this was utter nonsense,” said Dr. Romanenko, who went on to become a senior regional health official in post-Soviet times.

But in a Communist state, he had no choice but to go along with the charade, and he and his colleagues spent months seizing and testing meat. K.G.B. agents descended on his office and took away medical records. The Soviet Union had signed a treaty banning biological weapons, and national interests were at stake.

“There was an understanding that we had to get as far away as possible from the biological-weapons theory,” Dr. Romanenko recalled. “The task was to defend the honor of the country.”

But no one outside of the Soviet Union knew that at the time. In fact, the lie about what had happened gained support from some American scientists. A Nobel prize willing biologist named Joshua Lederberg visited the area in 1986 and concluded, “The current Soviet account is very likely to be true.”

The Times also links to a report from 1986 in which Dr. Matthew Meselson, a biological warfare expert, described asking for additional information about the outbreak in 1986 as the new era of glasnost was opening up access to Soviet experts. Dr. Meselson met with doctors in Moscow who gave “formal presentations” about the outbreak to him. Afterwards, Dr. Meselson referred what they had said to the U.S. Embassy and it was agreed the Soviet doctors would travel to America to present their views to a group of about 200 concerned experts. After this US tour took place featuring “a detailed elaboration of the original Soviet account” Dr. Meselson concluded “It is plausible and consistent with what is known from previous outbreaks of human and animal anthrax in the USSR and elsewhere.” But it wasn’t true.

Then, in 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed, President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia acknowledged “our military development was the cause” of the anthrax outbreak.

Dr. Meselson and his wife, the medical anthropologist Jeanne Guillemin, came to Yekaterinburg with other American experts for a painstaking study. They documented how a northeasterly wind on April 2, 1979, must have scattered as little as a few milligrams of anthrax spores accidentally released from the factory across a narrow zone extending at least 30 miles downwind.

“You can concoct a completely crazy story and make it plausible by the way you design it,” Dr. Meselson said, explaining why the Soviets had succeeded in dispelling suspicions about a lab leak.

In this particular case, it took the end of the Soviet Union to reveal the truth. It’s not hard to see how the same could be true with regard to COVID and the CCP. We still don’t have proof of a lab leak in Wuhan, but that’s to be expected where a communist dictatorship is in charge. As in Russia, the honor of the country is at stake and the people on the front lines know it would not be in their interest to reveal an embarrassing truth. So unless we get a defector, it could be a long time before we know what really happened.

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