Russian Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory Buildings
U.S. GAO archive image (2010) of Vector Research Institute. Smallpox repository on right.
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Explosion Confirmed at Russian Lab Storing Smallpox, Ebola

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.

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Blast Sparks Fire at Russian Laboratory Housing Smallpox Virus

The Guardian

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.

The Explosion at Vector: Hoping for the Best While Preparing for the Worst

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.

Russian Lab Explosion Raises Question: Should Smallpox Virus Be Kept or Destroyed?

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.

Could Viruses Survive a Blast?

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” laboratory.

“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.

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