New York Times
October 20, 2001
Russians Are Unfazed by Anthrax, a Common Rural Problem
By MICHAEL WINES
MOSCOW, Oct. 19 — The United States has recorded 40 or so cases of exposure to anthrax since Sept. 11, a total that moves Russians to blanch and yawn at the same time. Just this week, after all, 36 people were sent to hospitals for anthrax tests in Tuva Province alone. Tuva's population is about the same as Cincinnati's.
The difference is that the Tuvans were exposed not to an envelope filled with powder and spores, but to farm animals that carry the disease.
Anthrax is just one of life's risks in some rural parts here. That does not mean that ordinary Russians dismiss the notion of suffering a bioterror attack themselves. To the contrary, 55 percent of 2,221 callers to a radio station's call-in poll this week said they feared becoming targets.
The overarching theme among experts here, some of whom have dealt with anthrax for decades, is that Russians and Americans alike have more to fear from mass hysteria.
"Of course, people are worried," Dr. Veniamin L. Cherkassky, probably this nation's leading expert on anthrax, said in an interview. Mailing tainted letters, he said, "is far from being an efficient means of disseminating anthrax."
"The goal was different," he added, "to frighten, to sow panic, to deprive Americans of their sense of their own security. And at the same time, people all over the world feel the same sense of deprivation. You know, there is an old Russian saying: `The devil is not as frightening as his picture.' And I think this is the case at the present."
Dr. Cherkassky said he was discounting neither the lethality of anthrax nor the sophistication of the terrorists who use it. To the contrary, he said, "these are professionals, and I must say, high-class professionals — microbiologists, I think."
Public information, he said, suggests that the mailed anthrax was a standard form of the bacterium, perhaps the sort that research laboratories use. Dr. Cherkassky said it would hardly be difficult for a graduate student to conduct legitimate research on anthrax by day "and then put an ampule in his pocket and carry it home for other work at night."
Brewing anthrax outside a university, he said, would be fairly simple. But it would require expertise and a well-equipped lab to reduce the microbes to the precise size and powdery form that can cause inhalation anthrax, by far the deadliest form of the disease. Despite that sophistication, Dr. Cherkassky said, he is highly skeptical of anthrax's potential to deliver a terrorist apocalypse.
He speaks with some authority. A professor at the Central Research Institute of Epidemiology in Moscow, he is also director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Zoonoses, diseases passed from animals to people. Because Russia has 35,000 anthrax-contaminated sites, he said, even mandatory vaccination of farm animals cannot prevent the disease from striking in impoverished or ungovernable areas like Tuva, deep in southern Siberia.
Yet precisely because anthrax does not spread easily, even when a terrorist sets out to cause havoc, mass vaccinations are generally considered unnecessary.
Dr. Cherkassky said years of work here had produced a quick and effective vaccine based on a weakened form of the bacteria. American vaccines, he said, generally rely on chemical reactions and require several inoculations to be effective.
Russian medicine, he said, has a test that might reduce the time needed to confirm infections. But, he added, it is not clear that mass defense measures are needed now.