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.
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.
“We all have a common interest in finding out if it was due to a laboratory accident,” Matthew Meselson, a Harvard biologist, said in an interview this month from Cambridge, Mass., referring to the coronavirus pandemic. “Maybe it was a kind of accident that our present guidelines don’t protect against adequately.”
could have been linked to a military facility nearby. Six years later, he wrote that the Soviet explanation of the epidemic’s natural origins was “plausible.” The evidence the Soviets provided was consistent, he said, with the theory that people had been stricken by intestinal anthrax that originated in contaminated bone meal used as animal feed.
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 Sverdlovsk, as Yekaterinburg was known in Soviet times, those suspicions appeared as soon as people started falling mysteriously ill, according to interviews this month with residents who remember those days.
Raisa Smirnova, then a 32-year-old worker at a ceramics factory nearby, says she had friends at the mysterious compound who used their special privileges to help her procure otherwise hard-to-find oranges and canned meat. She also heard that there was some sort of secret work on germs being done there, and local rumors would attribute occasional disease outbreaks to the lab.