During the Cold War, governments—particularly the United States and the Soviet Union—went to infamous lengths to prepare biological agents, including plant and animal pathogens, that could destroy enemy crops and livestock. While the majority of these stockpiles have since been destroyed, some were buried underground… until now.
Scientists examining the effects of a 1979 anthrax outbreak in Yekaterinburg, Russia have published a troubling study that indicates traces of a bioweapon that is still capable of catastrophic damage.
After sifting through traces of bacterial spores preserved in the frigid climate of Yekaterinburg, Russia, a team of scientists from Northern Arizona University stumbled upon something frightening. Not only did they confirm the discovery of anthrax, but this particular strain could be genetically manipulated for use in biological warfare.
Previously, it was assumed that, in 1979, the anthrax spores had leaked from a broken air filter at Compound 19—a Soviet facility that supposedly conducted genetic manipulation during the Cold War. (That leak, by the way, led to the deaths of 66 people; authorities tried to blame bad meat purchased from the black market). While researchers found that the deadly Compound 19 strain was a type that already occurs in nature—and was not genetically modified—they did confirm the strain was a part of a “master cell stock” that was capable of being altered for use as a biological weapon.
The good news? They can track it. “This genomic identity can now be used for forensic tracking of this weapons material on a global scale and for future anthrax investigations,” the scientists reported.
Tracking the strains is a very good thing. To understand just how deadly they are, consider this: had the original 1979 strain drifted into the city center instead of its immediate area, it could have killed thousands more people. Not the sort of stuff you want out in the world…
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Even crazier: another strain of anthrax was just recently discovered in Siberia. It had been frozen in the corpses of dead reindeer for 75 years; thanks to the effects of global warming, the strain was released as the permafrost thawed. Yikes.
Of course, the existence of these strains raises a huge red flag with the Biological Weapons Convention—a multi-nation treaty that pledged to halt production on these types of weapons. Think they fell for the shady “bad meat” cover-up? Guess it’s time to start investing in a fallout shelter again…
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