(p. A4) YEKATERINBURG, Russia — Patients with unexplained pneumonias started showing up at hospitals; within days, dozens were dead. The secret police seized doctors’ records and ordered them to keep silent. American spies picked up clues about a lab leak, but the local authorities had a more mundane explanation: contaminated meat.
It took more than a decade for the truth to come out.
In April and May 1979, at least 66 people died after airborne anthrax bacteria emerged from a military lab in the Soviet Union. But leading American scientists voiced confidence in the Soviets’ claim that the pathogen had jumped from animals to humans. Only after a full-fledged investigation in the 1990s did one of those scientists confirm the earlier suspicions: The accident in what is now the Russian Urals city of Yekaterinburg was a lab leak, one of the deadliest ever documented.
Nowadays, some of the victims’ graves appear abandoned, their names worn off their metal plates in the back of a cemetery on the outskirts of town, where they were buried in coffins with an agricultural disinfectant. But the story of the accident that took their lives, and the cover-up that hid it, has renewed relevance as scientists search for the origins of Covid-19.
It shows how an authoritarian government can successfully shape the narrative of a disease outbreak and how it can take years — and, perhaps, regime change — to get to the truth.
“Wild rumors do spread around every epidemic,” Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel-winning American biologist, wrote in a memo after a fact-finding trip to Moscow in 1986. “The current Soviet account is very likely to be true.”
Many scientists believe that the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic evolved in animals and jumped at some point to humans. But scientists are also calling for deeper investigation of the possibility of an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
There is also widespread concern that the Chinese government — which, like the Soviet government decades before it, dismisses the possibility of a lab leak — is not providing international investigators with access and data that could shed light on the pandemic’s origins.
. . .
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.”
There were even jitters at the Evening Sverdlovsk, a local newspaper. A correspondent from The New York Times called the newsroom as the outbreak unfolded, recalls a journalist there at the time, Aleksandr Pashkov. The editor in chief told the staff to stop answering long-distance calls, lest anyone go off-message if the correspondent called again.
“He who can keep a secret comes out on top,” Mr. Pashkov said.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, so did its ability to keep secrets. For a 1992 documentary, Mr. Pashkov tracked down a retired counterintelligence officer in Ukraine — now a different country — who had worked in Sverdlovsk at the time. Telephone intercepts at the military lab, the officer said, revealed that a technician had forgotten to replace a safety filter.
Soon, Mr. Yeltsin — who himself was part of the cover-up as the top Communist official in the region in 1979 — admitted that the military was to blame.
“You need to understand one simple thing,” Mr. Pashkov said. “Why did all this become known? The collapse of the Union.”
For the full story, see:
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 20, 2021 and has the title “Soviets Once Denied a Deadly Anthrax Lab Leak. U.S. Scientists Backed the Story.”)