One worker was hospitalized after a gas explosion on Sep.
16 caused a fire to break out at the Russian biological research facility in
the Siberian city of Koltsovo. According to news coverage and the World Health
Organization, the explosion did not occur near any storage areas of smallpox or
other virus stockpiles; they remain intact and secure.
The State Research Centre on Virology and Biotechnology,
known as Vector, is the only center in the world other than the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention approved and known to have live samples of
the deadly smallpox virus.
The following statement was posted on the research center’s website (translated):
There was a gas cylinder explosion with fire (contained to an area of 30 m2) on the 5th floor of a 6-story reinforced concrete laboratory building in the sanitary inspection room being repaired. No work with biological material was carried out in the area. 1 person was injured, the building structure was not damaged.
Monday’s incident was not the first at the Vector lab. In
2004, a researcher died at the complex after accidentally pricking
herself with a needle carrying the Ebola virus. Russian media then claimed
it was the only death from the virus in Russia’s history. Outbreaks of anthrax
and smallpox were caused by Soviet weapons development programmes in the 1970s
and subsequently covered up by the government.
Journal of Global Biosecurity
From a risk analysis perspective, an explosion at a BSL 4
facility for dangerous, contagious pathogens is a risk for global health.
Despite the Russian government assertion that there is no risk to public
health, it would be wise to assess the risk as objectively as possible.
An explosion in a BSL 4 laboratory cannot be classified
in the same risk category as misplaced biological samples, needlestick injuries
or shipping errors, and the lack of epidemics arising from the latter examples
is not grounds to dismiss the risk from this unique event. The building was
physically breached by an explosion which would have resulted in propagation of
aerosols at subsonic speeds. Preparedness planning principles can be applied to
this event, starting with environmental testing, screening, surveillance and
containment. Other considerations would be stockpiling of countermeasures for
pathogens known to be housed in the building and planning for human resources
and physical space for isolation of cases and quarantine of contacts.
Fran Kritz at NPR
In the past two decades, WHO has approved research using
the live virus, which has resulted in new diagnostics to test for the virus,
the first ever treatment for smallpox, approved by the Food and Drug
Administration in 2018, and work on new vaccines to prevent smallpox, including
one being tested on health care workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo to
prevent monkeypox, a viral cousin of smallpox.
The members of the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus
Research are divided. During their most recent meeting, in September 2018, most
said that samples of the live virus are still needed for development of another
antiviral drug with a method of action different from the one approved by the
FDA — in case there is resistance to the first drug.
Those on the side of destroying the stocks say new drugs
and vaccines could be tested using gene fragments that have been sequenced from
the live virus as well as on similar viruses like monkeypox.
Helen Regan at CNN
Dr. Joseph Kam, Honorary Clinical Associate Professor at
the Stanley Ho Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases (CEID) told CNN
that rules for storing viruses are very strict and highly dangerous diseases
such as Ebola and smallpox would be stored in the highest “Level 4”
“Viruses are fragile and more than 100 degrees or
more will kill them,” Kam said. He added that under certain circumstances,
an explosion could spread the virus. “Part of the wave of the force of the
explosion would carry it away from the site when it was first stored,” he
said. That contamination zone could be 10 to a few hundred meters depending on
the size of the blast and other factors such as wind speed and direction, and
whether it was an airborne virus.