290. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • BW: The Sverdlovsk Incident


  • US
  • The Acting Secretary
  • PM—Reginald Bartholomew
  • S/MSMarshall Shulman
  • USSR
  • Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin

Toward the end of a discussion on TNF,2 the Acting Secretary mentioned that he had one other matter to raise. This concerned the outbreak of anthrax in Sverdlovsk last spring. The Acting Secretary said [Page 852] that we felt that we hadn’t been able to engage the Soviet Government on this matter to the extent its seriousness warranted. He noted that Ambassador Earle would meet with Dobrynin to discuss this issue in some detail.

Dobrynin responded by questioning what it was the US wanted, since this was not clear. He noted that the Soviets have already given us an explanation of this incident.

The Acting Secretary again stressed the seriousness we attach to engaging in bilateral consultations so we could satisfy ourselves on this issue, and not permit this question to undermine the BW Convention or damage prospects for arms control generally.

Dobrynin reiterated that they have given us what they have on this matter, and that the Soviets have not seen anything from us that would contradict their explanation. He said that our goal should be preserving the Convention and prospects for arms control. Dobrynin again stressed that what they have heard was based on hearsay, and that if we have anything else more to say in terms of evidence or proof would we please tell them.

The Acting Secretary replied by stressing that Ambassador Earle will provide information that will underline the seriousness of our concerns.

Due to the press of vacation plans, Dobrynin suggested that Ambassador Earle see Vasev instead and give him a paper, which Dobrynin would then make certain is dealt with in Moscow. Dobrynin stressed that he needed to take something back with him.

The Acting Secretary repeated that this was a serious political matter, that Ambassador Earle had important things to say about this question, and that Dobrynin should definitely try to see Earle before returning to Moscow.

Dobrynin said that he understood the seriousness of this issue, but suggested that it reflected domestic American election-year politics. But he asked whether we really had something to say. If so, this would be good. But he did not want to discuss just anything on this issue in a general fashion. People in Moscow are critical of the way in which this issue has been the subject of rumor, hearsay, and press reports.

The Acting Secretary said that this issue would be every bit as serious to the USG if we were now in the first year of this Administration instead of the fourth year. He suggested the possibility that the issue might be addressed by distinguished scientists from each country.

Dobrynin repeated again that up to now there has been no proof, and there have been indirect discussions in the scientific community [Page 853] which have caused a chain reaction. There has not been a single additional fact but only hearsay.

The Acting Secretary concluded this portion of the conversation by urging Dobrynin to see Ambassador Earle on the BW question.



In March 1980 at the Five-Year Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention, the United States Government reported that it had initiated consultations with the Soviet Union as the result of information which raised questions concerning the compliance of the Soviet Union with the Biological Weapons Convention. We indicated that we were proceeding in these consultations in a cooperative spirit and in accordance with the specific provisions of the Convention; we further indicated our hopes that the Soviet Union would also proceed in the same manner. At that time, anticipating that the bilateral consultations would take some time, the USG promised to make a full report on the results of those consultations to the Parties at a later appropriate date. This paper constitutes that promised report. (S)

The basic obligation of the BWC, set forth in Article I, provides that parties undertake “never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protection or other peaceful purposes.” The Convention also provides, in Article V, that Parties undertake to consult and to cooperate with one another “in solving any problems which may arise” relating to the application of the provisions of the Convention. (S)

Early in 1980, the United States Government became aware of an event which apparently happened in the city of Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union during the spring of 1979. Information concerning this event raised questions regarding the compliance of the Soviet Union with the obligations it had undertaken in Article I of the Biological Weapons Convention. On the basis of the evidence then available, it was decided that the matter would be raised with Soviet authorities pursuant to Article V of the treaty. The timing of the request for information from the Soviets was complicated by the fact that, purely by coincidence, the [Page 854] long-planned Five-Year Review Conference of the parties to the Biological Weapons Convention had convened in Geneva and was in session at that time. (S)

The USG raised the matter in Moscow on March 174 and informed the participants in the Geneva Conference of that action. The USG further promised to report the results of consultations with the Soviet Government to the parties to the BWC. In responding to the USG demarche, the Soviets acknowledged that a number of deaths had occurred due to an anthrax epidemic in Sverdlovsk in April 1979, but asserted that it was the intestinal form of anthrax resulting from contaminated meat. The USG again raised the issue with the Soviets on March 28 and proposed expert consultations as called for in Article V. The Soviet Government repeated its earlier explanation and denied the request for consultations. Most recently, in June, the USG reiterated its concerns to the Soviets and re-emphasized its interest in pursuing expert consultations as provided in Article V. The Soviet Government has again repeated its simple denial and refused its request for consultations to resolve the issue. (S)

The concerns which originally led the USG to raise this issue with the Soviet Government are as follows:

There is located in the south of Sverdlovsk a military facility which is subordinate to the section within the Soviet Ministry of Defense which is responsible for biological and chemical warfare. This facility is contained within a heavily secured perimeter and operates in secrecy. It includes structures, including animal pens, which suggest that it is engaged in research and/or production activities involving biological effects on living organisms. Other physical characteristics of the facility include structures suitable for storage of explosives. The facility was built before 1972 (i.e., before the signature of the Biological Weapons Convention), and it remains in active use up to the present time. (S)

According to reliable reports, during the first weeks of April 1979, at least 40 persons died in Sverdlovsk after experiencing pulmonary and other symptoms normally associated with inhalation anthrax. Many additional cases were reported in the following weeks, and a large hospital in Sverdlovsk became devoted exclusively to the treatment of anthrax cases—under military control and strict secrecy. (S)

Anthrax is an animal disease caused by a bacterial organism which may infect humans who are exposed to it. There are three forms of anthrax, which are distinguished by the manner in which the spores enter the body. Cutaneous anthrax, the most common form, is caused when spores enter through a cut in the skin of a person handling contami[Page 855]nated animals or animal products. Intestinal anthrax results from the consumption of contaminated meat. Inhalation anthrax is caused by airborne spores entering the lungs. (Spores in animal hair or hides can become airborne in industrial processing of contaminated material.) Cutaneous anthrax is readily diagnosed, easily treated, and not usually fatal when treated. (Untreated cases result in death about 20% of the time.) The intestinal variety, however, often results in death. Inhalation anthrax is almost always fatal. Anthrax organisms which are ingested or inhaled are transported within the body to lymph glands (in the abdomen and in the chest, respectively) where they multiply and produce a toxin which spreads through the body and is difficult to arrest. These forms of anthrax are more difficult to diagnose, but are readily indentified and distinguished from each other in clinical diagnosis. A principal difference between intestinal and inhalation anthrax which assists in clinical diagnosis is that the former type is usually characterized by abdominal distress and the latter by respiratory distress. Both varieties produce cyanosis, general toxemia, and death within about a week of exposure. (S)

The initial victims of the Sverdlovsk outbreak resided or worked in the immediate vicinity of the military facility described above. Many reports indicate the widespread belief in Sverdlovsk that the outbreak of anthrax was indeed caused by an accident at that military facility. The reported locations of the initial victims, near the facility, suggest that the disease could have reached them by an airborne cloud emanating from the facility. Meteorological data for the most likely dates of such an occurence are consistent with this possibility. (S)

Official Soviet explanations of the outbreak as initiated by anthrax-infected cattle are not credible because of the large number of victims and the contrary clinical reports indicating symptoms of inhalation anthrax rather than intestinal anthrax. Furthermore, decontamination measures taken by Soviet authorities, including the spraying of buildings and terrain with disinfectants, were more consistent with a response to an airborne infection than with a response to the pres-ence of contaminated meat. A quarantine of the affected region of Sverdlovsk was established and transportation out of the city was controlled. (S)

The information which gave rise to the USG’s concerns has come from a variety of sources, including extremely sensitive technical and human intelligence information. The USG will not jeopardize these sources and methods of intelligence collection. Consequently the USG cannot elaborate further on its understanding of the events in Sverdlovsk or on the origins of its information. (S)

Although this evidence is less than conclusive, the USG believes that it raises questions serious enough to warrant pursuit of the issue [Page 856] under Article V of the Convention. Despite three formal overtures from the USG, the Soviet Government has declined to cooperate and consult as provided in Article V. The US Government regrets that its concerns have not been allayed. (S)

The USG has attached great importance to seeking a resolution of this issue which would enhance confidence in the BWC, in contrast to one which could result in complications for future cooperation among nations in the vital sphere of arms control. The furtherance of the arms control process has been a common objective of fundamental importance to both the US and the USSR. It is hoped that the Soviet Government will respond to this report in a manner satisfactory to the other parties to the BWC so that the viability of the Convention, and the broader process of arms control so vitally important to the security of all the nations of the world will be enhanced. (S)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Institutional File, Box 42, INT Documents: #4200s: 7/80. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Bartholomew. In the upper right-hand corner of the memorandum, Brzezinski wrote, “M[arshall] B[rement], Next step? ZB.”
  2. The July 10 memorandum of conversation covering TNF is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Subject File, Box 47, Nuclear: TNF: 1–10/80.
  3. Secret.
  4. See Document 269.