Soviets admit epidemic but deny any link to germ warfare

The sudden public furor between the United States and the Soviet Union over bacteriological weapons reveals acute Soviet secrecy and sensitivity on the issue -- and smoldering anger at what the Kremlin sees as unfair US maneuvering.

Yet, even as the Kremlin went to unusual lengths to deny suggestions it had violated a 1975 treaty on making and storing bacteriological agents, it became evident that some kind of epidemic had, in fact, occurred in the Ural city of Sverdlovsk last year.

After a West German press report that an explosion just outside the city had killed large numbers of people and exposed thousands to contamination, the US State Department asked the Soviets for an explanation -- but it waited a month to do so.

Information available here suggests the epidemic could have been anthrax, medically described as an animal-borne bacteria lethal to humans.

Anthrax is also an agent used in germ warfare experimentation. The Soviet tone suggests that whatever epidemic it was is attributable to medical causes and not to bacteriological leakages or explosions.

The affair blew up as overall US-Soviet detente hit its lowest ebb in decades. It has done nothing to improve it.

The Soviets believe that Washington, without firm evidence, has deliberately appealed to world opinion to believe that Moscow is making and storing bacteriological agents, as well as testing them in Afghanistan. Some also accuse Vietnam of using toxic gases in Laos and Cambodia.

The furor is extremely difficult for the average person to grasp. Actual facts are conspicuous by their absence. The original report came in a sensational West German newspaper. The Soviets are traditionally secretive about defense and epidemics. Sverdlovsk itself is closed to foreigners. A city of 1.2 million, it makes steel and is said to have a number of defense plants.

The US has not said how many it thinks were killed in the Sverdlovsk incident or even what it thinks happened there. Its request for information followed statements in Washington that unverified evidence suggested the use of Soviet gas in Afghanistan.

Already angry at what they see as Carter administration efforts to worsen detente, the Soviets decided to hit back hard and continuously at the bacteriological issue.

On March 19 the Foreign Ministry took the almost unprecedented step of having an official personally relay a denial to Western correspondents, calling US suggestions that the 1975 treay had been violated "impudent lies."

On March 20 the Soviets released three separate statements. The first, on the news agency Tass, attacked US press accounts but backhandedly and indirectly admitted that an epidemic had occurred in Sverdlovsk.

The second accused the Pentagon of stockpiling bacteriological weapons openly and dangerously. The third, again relayed by a Foreign Ministry spokesman, rejected any suggestions that Moscow had broken the 1975 treaty.

The Soviets relayed a preliminary answer to the US via the US Embassy here, rejecting charges of treaty violation.

Meanwhile a Sverdlovsk newspaper said by telephone it had published three articles on anthrax last year. But a Sverdlovsk hospital denied any cases of anthrax last year.

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