October 16, 2001
Russia an Oasis of Calm as Western Countries Panic Over Anthrax Outbreaks
Epidemic May Prove to be Convenient Pretext for U.S. to Launch Strikes Against Third States
By Patricia Heffernan
By Tuesday, what had hitherto been an anthrax scare contained within the United States had spread to countries such as Canada, Germany, France and Belgium, initiating a worldwide state of hightened alarm over the outbreaks.
Russia, however, continues to take a phlegmatic approach to the problem. As the Russian daily "Izvestiya" pointed out in its Tuesday issue, there have always been foci of anthrax in Russia, and in all likelihood, there always will be, as the disease is endemic to the country. It is no coincidence that anthrax has a second medical name - in Russia it is called the Siberian plague.
Foci of this disease are scattered all over the vast expanses of Russia and have been festering for centuries. The source of a recent infection in Tuva was rainwater that had flooded a livestock burial ground that for decades - if not centuries - held the cadavers of cattle that had died of that disease.
At the moment, physicians are examining 26 persons that had contact with diseased livestock. 236 heads of livestock have been vaccinated. Bringing meat and dairy products into and out of the district is being strictly monitored. Health Ministry officials indicate that an epidemic would only be announced if the number of persons infected exceeds 200.
Russia's Agriculture Ministry sees no reason to panic. Ministry officials do not view the incident in Tuva as the beginning of an epidemic, as the number of such livestock burial grounds in the country is innumerable.
Domestically, there are no plans to finally set up a domestic anthrax monitoring system, even though specialists have been calling for such a system for years.
On the international front, however, Russia stands ready to support the U.S. in this apparent second wave of terrorist attacks. Russian Health Minister Yury Shevchenko on Monday announced that his ministry was prepared, if need be, to help the American medical establishment in the fight against the outbreak of anthrax.
Shevchenko indicated that this primarily concerned vaccinating the population. According to the health minister, Russia has the anthrax vaccine, the necessary technologies for combating the disease, and a collection of strains found worldwide, which would be required for producing a vaccine to combat anthrax.
Meanwhile, military "hawks" within the American administration are likely looking at the situation as a convenient pretext to widen the U.S.-led anti-terrorism military campaign to include strikes against other suspected terrorist safe havens such as Iraq, Oman and Algiers - countries that they had wanted to target in the first place.
Up until now, the "doves" on President Bush's staff have been able to limit strikes to those against Afghanistan. The "hawks" may have gained the upper hand, if it can be proven that the anthrax outbreaks were initiated by terrorist groups operating outside the Taliban's home base of Afghanistan.
U.S. National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, has gone on public record as saying that countries found to be harboring the "anthrax" terrorists face the same military strikes now raining down on Afghanistan.
In an interview with radio station "Echo Moskvyi" on Sunday, Viktor Maleev, a professor at the RAMN scientific research institute for epidemiology in Moscow, said that it was "unlikely" that the Taliban could organize an anthrax epidemic in the U.S.
Responding to mass media reports that a Red Cross laboratory in Kabul, Afghanistan, containing anthrax cultures and under the tight control of the Taliban, Maleev responded by saying, "We're talking about dead cultures, used in the creation of vaccines. To conduct experiments on live cultures would be beyond Afghanistan's low scientific capabilities. It's only theoretically possible."
If it becomes not only "theoretically possible" but "highly probable" that another group or country is responsible for the anthrax outbreaks in the U.S. and elsewhere, the U.S. "hawks" may yet have their day.