Explosion Rocks Former Russian Bioweapons Lab

The biolaboratory where the explosion occurred houses one of only two remaining smallpox samples in the world. (Live Science)

The biolaboratory where the explosion occurred houses one of only two remaining smallpox samples in the world. (Live Science)

A gas explosion caused the partial destruction of a Russian laboratory on September 16, injuring one worker and blowing out several windows at the Vector State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology. A fire resulting from the explosion burned through about 30 m2 of the building’s fifth floor before firefighters arrived on the scene and extinguished the blaze.

The Vector Institute houses numerous virus and disease samples such as Ebola, anthrax, bird flu, and one of the only two remaining samples of smallpox in the world. Most recently, the Institute conducted research on an Ebola vaccine in early 2019. The laboratory released a statement affirming that the fire did not affect any areas of the lab that were currently involved in the research of viruses or vaccines.

The Institute’s history is tarnished by its alleged status as the center of the covert Soviet bioweapons program. Ken Alibek, a prominent Soviet defector, wrote and spoke extensively about the program, for which he was a lead scientist until his defection in 1992. According to Alibek, the Soviet bioweapons program operated in direct contravention of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, under which the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., along with many other countries, agreed to cease research and production of bioweapons.

The Soviet program, Alibek told the Joint Economic Committee in 1998, involved “conducting molecular biology and genetic engineering research in order to develop antibiotic-resistant and immunosuppressive strains.” This was intended to create new, potent versions of viruses that could easily be loaded onto missiles and spread over large areas with projected fatality rates of up to 90 percent. The Vector Institute was the hub of such research and, given its isolated location in Koltsovo, Siberia, was a prime location for testing and manufacturing bioweapons.

Despite fears that the explosion could trigger an accidental release of viral particles and result in an outbreak, the chances of such a breach are exceedingly slim.

“Fire is a risk for any biolab, but it is not a high threat of spreading live virus because most viruses are quite heat-labile when they are stored in repositories,” University of Alberta microbiology professor David Evans said. It would be nearly impossible for a virus to survive a fire’s high temperatures, much less continue to propagate after the incident, Evans said.

Moreover, most scientists consider the Vector Institute to be one of the world’s most prestigious—and safest—biolaboratories. The World Health Organization (WHO) has granted the Vector Institute a level-four biosafety clearance, a major factor in the WHO’s decision to condone the Institute’s possession of a smallpox sample. Given the near-negligible impact of the fire, it is unlikely that the explosion will have any long-lasting effect on the Vector Institute’s safety or reputation.