An explosion on Monday caused a fire at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, a biological research facility in Siberia that is known to be one of the two centers in the world that contains samples of live smallpox virus. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta is the only other site known for maintaining live samples of the deadly pathogen.
According to the chief administrator of the city of Koltsovo, where the research center, often called the Vector Institute, is located, the explosion occurred during scheduled maintenance work. The incident does not pose a threat to the surrounding society, Nikolai Krasnikov told the Russian TASS news agency. According to TASS there were no biohazard substances involved. One worker was injured and taken to hospital with burn injuries. Russia today reported that emergency recipients treated the explosion and the fire as an important event given the sensitive work of the Vector Institute.
The Vector Institute is known for producing world-class epidemiological research. According to TASS researchers recently collected successful studies on an Ebola vaccine earlier this year. Despite this reputation, questions have been asked about the institute. A high-ranking Soviet bio-weapon official who abolished the United States in the 1990s claimed that copper had been moved to the Vector Institute to conduct bio-weapon research.
The world's second coupling repository, CDC, has also raised questions about its security processes and infrastructure. In 2016 USA Today published a report on failures at the centers, including an incident in 2009 where researchers in biohazard suits could see light seeping into a decontamination chamber where workers who had just done fatal pathogens work would be doused in a chemical shower.
The last known smallpox outbreak was 1977 and the World Health Organization declared that the disease was eradicated in 1980. The disease killed approximately 300 million people during the 20th century and three out of ten people affected by it died. The survivors were often left scarred and blind.
Monday's blast closely follows the heels of another explosion at a Russian plant conducting high-tech and risky research. In August, five nuclear scientists killed an accident at a missile test site. US officials believe that researchers at the site were working on a nuclear-powered cruise missile.