Fire at smallpox lab no health threat: Russia

Fire at smallpox lab no health threat: Russia

An explosion that caused a fire at a Russian biological research lab – one of only two known centres holding samples of the smallpox virus – poses no health risk, according to the authorities.

The blast on Monday reportedly happened during repair work of a sanitary inspection lab at the Russian State Centre for Research on Virology and Biotechnology, (Vector) near Novosibirsk in Siberia. 

One member of staff was severely burned, according to Moscow mouthpiece Tass. 

Vector said no biohazard material was stored where the explosion occurred. 

A gas cylinder purportedly exploded on the fifth floor of the six-storey block in the city of Koltsovo causing no structural damage, according to Tass. 

Founded in 1974, the lab was once known for biological weapons research during the Cold War and is now a hub for developing vaccines and diagnostics and treating infectious diseases.

Scientist Nikolai Ustinov died in Koltsovo in 1988 after accidentally infecting himself with Marburg, which causes fever and haemorrhaging.

The lab says it is developing vaccines for swine flu, HIV, and Ebola. 

In 2004, a scientist died after she accidentally pricked herself with a needle containing the Ebola virus.

Vector has also held highly contagious forms of bird flu and hepatitis.

Outbreaks of anthrax and smallpox were caused by weapons development programmes in the 1970s, which was covered up by the Soviet authorities.

In 1979 anthrax spores escaped from a military research site near Sverdlovsk, which is now called Yekaterinburg in the Urals, killing more than 60 people. 

The KGB covered up the accident and it was not admitted by the authorities until the 1990s. 

Ken Alibek, a former Soviet biological-warfare researcher who defected to the US, said the accident near Sverdlovsk was caused by staff forgetting to replace an exhaust filter.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is the other site known to have live samples of the deadly smallpox virus, which could make a virulent weapon if it fell into terrorist hands.

Vector was threatened by a funding crisis in the 1990s, raising concerns that its scientists might sell biological samples or techniques to states like Iraq and North Korea. 

The US Food and Drug Administration last year approved the first drug to treat smallpox. It was eradicated in 1980 but there are fears that the Russian supplies could have been dispersed. 

 

Koltsovo. Picture credit: Wikimedia  

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