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Blast Rocks Russian Facility Storing Smallpox and Ebola Viruses

Officials say that disease samples were not being stored in the affected laboratory, and there is no risk to the public

The explosion does not pose any biological risks to the public, officials say. Reports state there were no disease samples in the laboratory because of the ongoing repairs. And even if had pathogens had been present, the heat of the fire probably would have killed them. (gevende / iStock)
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There are only two institutions in the world approved to house samples of the smallpox virus, a deadly disease that was declared eradicated in 1980. One is the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the other is the Russian State Centre for Research on Virology and Biotechnology—more commonly known as Vector—in Koltsovo, Siberia. On Monday, as Helen Regan reports for CNN, Vector was rocked by a blast so powerful that it blew out windows in one of the complex’s buildings. Officials have said that the incident does not pose any biological risks to the public.

Vector was founded in 1974 and, for 20 years, served as a Soviet research facility for the development of deadly biological weapons; in 2000, the Washington Post deemed it “one of the Cold War's most terrifying legacies.” But today, Vector is a leader in the development of vaccines and other tools for treating infectious diseases. According to the BBC, the center is home to one of the world’s largest collection of viruses, among them Ebola, bird flu and various strains of hepatitis.

This week’s blast reportedly stemmed from the explosion of a gas canister during refurbishment work in the sanitary inspection room of a laboratory building. According to Andrew Roth of the Guardian, the fire spread through the building’s ventilation system, covering more than 320 square feet before it was extinguished. One worker sustained third-degree burns from the blast, but Vector said in a statement that the structure of the building was not damaged. It also stressed that no biological work was being carried out in the room where the explosion occurred. In fact, Roth reports, the mayor of Koltsovo said that there were no disease samples in the laboratory as a whole because of the ongoing repairs.

This is not the first time that an incident at a Vector lab has brought the center under international scrutiny. In 2004, a researcher there died after accidentally pricking herself with an Ebola-laced needle, prompting concerns about the safety of the facility. Vector also did not report the accident World Health Organization until days after it had occurred. And the Russian center is not the only one to have slipped up in its safety protocols; in 2014, the CDC admitted that it had improperly sent dangerous pathogens, including anthrax, botulism and bird flu, to other laboratories in five separate incidents.

As reporter Matthew Gault explains for Vice:

The argument for keeping these viruses is that they need to be studied. And, in case they should ever return, samples must be kept to help us fight them. But ... the presence of deadly pathogens is always a risk, no matter how noble the intentions behind keeping them.

Scientists working outside Vector can’t be sure of the specifics of this week’s incident, but fortunately, experts seem to concur with Russian officials about the lack of risks to the public. David Evans, a professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Alberta, tells Live Science’s Jeanna Bryner that it “doesn't sound like [the explosion] was near where the variola virus [which causes smallpox] is stored or where the research is conducted.”

And even if had pathogens had been present, the heat of the fire probably would have killed them. “Viruses are fragile things,” Evans explains, “and a fire in the immediate vicinity would first melt the contents and then consume them.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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