An explosion at Russia’s State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (Vector) resulted in a fire, glass blown out throughout the building, and one worker suffering third degree burns on Tuesday, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Vector is one of the only two places in the world where live smallpox virus samples are officially stored, as well as retains stocks of other deadly pathogens including the Ebola virus and anthrax spores.
According to the state-run TASS news agency, Koltsovo city head administrator Nikolai Krasnikov said that the blast occurred during scheduled repair work, blowing out glass in the building and starting a 30 square metre fire. Various reports have indicated the incident started with a gas explosion.
However, Krasnikov emphasised that no biohazardous materials were stored where the explosion and blaze occurred, and that there is no threat to the general population. The building where Vector is located did not suffer structural damage, Krasnikov added, while the worker is in “intensive” condition.
RT, another state-run media outlet, reported that the fire was upgraded to a “major incident” and that the Emergencies Ministry dispatched 13 fire trucks and 38 firefighters.
There are reports coming out of Russia that an explosion occurred at the Vector Institute in Novosibirsk. It's a virology and biotechnology institute
— Olga Lautman (@olgaNYC1211) September 16, 2019
This could be charitably called a poor time for a sensitive Russian government facility to experience an explosion, as a mysterious blast officials in the country first described as an accident during a Ministry of Defence test of a rocket liquid propulsion system killed at least five people in August.
Doctors who attended to the victims were reportedly not told the patients were exposed to radioactive materials (with one being told he must have eaten “Fukushima crabs” in Thailand). It was later reported U.S. intelligence believes the Russian military was trying to cover up a disaster during an attempted recovery of a nuclear-powered missile.
As the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted, Vector is considered one of the world’s leading epidemiological research centres (credited with developing an Ebola vaccine this year), but it and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control where other smallpox samples are stored have both faced questions regarding “safety processes and infrastructure”:
Despite that reputation, there have been questions raised about the institute. A high-ranking Soviet bioweapons official who defected to the United States in the 1990s claimed that smallpox had been moved to the Vector Institute in order to conduct bioweapons research.
The world’s other smallpox repository, the CDC, has also faced questions about its safety processes and infrastructure. In 2016, USA Today published an investigation on failures at the centres, including a 2009 incident where scientists in biohazard suits could see light seeping into a decontamination chamber where workers who’d just done work with deadly pathogens were supposed to be doused in a chemical shower.
In 2004, Ebola researcher Antonina Presnyakova died after sticking herself with a needle carrying the virus at Vector. According to the New York Times, the incident raised “concerns about safety and secrecy” after a multi-week delay in reporting the incident to the World Health Organisation meant the agency’s scientists “could not provide prompt advice on treatment that might have saved her life.”