Blast rocks Russian lab that stores smallpox virus

The Russian facility that houses the smallpox virus has experienced a gas-cylinder explosion that led to a fire. No biohazardous substances were in the room where the explosion happened, according to the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (Vector). 

Vector is one of two facilities where variola virus, the infectious agent that causes smallpox, is stored officially. Monday, an explosion attributed to a gas cylinder rocked a room on the fifth floor of the six-floor Vector building, causing a fire. Vector said the sanitary inspection room was being repaired at the time and was free from biologically hazardous materials. 

One person at the site was injured, but that is the extent of the reported impact of the explosion and fire on human health. Vector and the mayor of Koltsovo, the Siberian settlement where the research facility is based, both stated that no biohazardous materials were released as a result of the blast. 

Vector is perhaps best known for housing the variola virus, but it is involved in a range of research related to multiple viruses. The laboratory lists research into vaccines against influenza, measles and hepatitis A among its current projects. 

The presence of variola virus, plus other pathogens including HIV and Ebola, at the Vector site have led to global media coverage of the explosion. While the articles have reported official statements downplaying the impact of the explosion, they have also noted Russia’s track record of underplaying the significance of comparable events. 

Last month, Russian authorities initially denied that a rocket carrying nuclear materials had exploded, according to The Guardian, reportedly even hiding the nature of the incident from hospital staff who treated people exposed to fatal radiation levels. Subsequent reports revealed five people died in that incident, but details of exactly what caused the explosion are yet to emerge.