A Northern Arizona University-led team of researchers has analyzed Bacillus anthracis strains isolated from victims of the 1979 bioweapons accident in Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union, ScienceInsider reports. In the incident, anthrax spores were released from a production facility, carried on the wind for some 50 kilometers, and killed 66 people.
In a preprint at BioRxiv, the researchers write that they deeply sequenced formalin-fixed tissues samples from two victims and conducted phylogenetic analyses to find that these strains only differed by 13 SNPs from its common ancestors with two vaccine strains. From this and other analyses, the researchers say there's no evidence the Soviet scientists tried to grow a drug- or vaccine-resistant strain or genetically engineer the strain.
"This is a perfectly ordinary strain," Harvard University's Matthew Meselson, who has also studied the incident, tells ScienceInsider. He adds that this work indicates that the Sverdlovsk strain "was one found in the environment which the Russians picked up and used for whatever they were doing there."
The study may also help in the future identification of any misplaced Soviet bioweapons, ScienceInsider adds.