Explosions in dangerous places have become quite the theme in Russia over the years, as seen again this week with the brief announcement on Monday [September 16] that “a gas cylinder explosion” caused a fire in a reinforced concrete laboratory building near Novosibirsk, in Siberia. The complexity this time is that the Vector facility—the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology—is a Cold War era Soviet bioweapons lab that now researches (and houses) Ebola, Smallpox and Anthrax.
The fact that Vector is one of only two places in the world that stockpiles Smallpox—the other being the CDC facility in Atlanta—tells you everything you need to know. Local firefighter and rescue teams responded to the explosion before someone realised the implications and, as reported by Russian media, “the situation was quickly upgraded from an ordinary emergency to a major incident.”
The authorities reported that the fire “was eliminated” in a area where “no biological material” is stored, “one person was injured and the building was not damaged.” Russian state media reported the facility’s head “emphasizing the incident does not pose any biological or any other threat to the population.” Let’s be clear, though, history tells us this is exactly what would have been announced whatever the outcome.
State media also confirmed that the facility, which is “known for having developed vaccines for Ebola and hepatitis, as well as for studying epidemics and general issues surrounding immunology,” was part of a “now-defunct Soviet biological weapons program,” and that “some of the most dangerous strains—including smallpox, Ebola, anthrax and certain plagues—are still being kept inside the Institute’s building.”
The Vector facility has been under the microscope before. Fifteen years ago, a scientist at the same facility died after sticking themselves with an Ebola-laced needle, leading to concerns about the safety protocols and standards in place.